Home by May: 2,000 British troops to withdraw from Iraq

Britain plans to begin withdrawing 2,000 troops from Iraq, starting this spring, according to a secret blueprint agreed with allies
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Britain plans to begin withdrawing 2,000 troops from Iraq, starting this spring, according to a secret blueprint agreed with allies.

The pull-out plan would see an initial 500 British troops depart from southern Iraq by the end of May, a Whitehall source confirmed. By the end of the year, under a schedule revealed at a meeting of military commanders and diplomats last month, Britain intends to withdraw up to 2,000 soldiers - a quarter of its total force in Iraq.

The US is understood to have approved the proposal in principle, as long as there are no significant upheavals in Iraq's political process and security condition.

This first signal of a pull-out from Iraq will be welcomed by military commanders, who believe little can be gained by maintaining a significant presence much longer. "We will have achieved pretty much all we can by this summer," a senior military source told The Independent on Sunday, although he emphasised that some British troops would remain in the country for years to come.

The British deployment in Iraq has dragged on, with the number of military deaths rising above 100 last week. Former military chiefs spoke to The Independent on Sunday yesterday, increasing demands for a pull-out. "The longer we stay there, the more we become part of the problem and not the solution," said Field Marshal Lord Brammall, former chief of defence staff. "I have always thought we should go sooner rather than later."

Air Marshal Sir Tim Garden, former assistant chief of defence staff, said: "What we need is to draw up a set of targets for withdrawal. The timescale we would want to see for a draw-down of occupying forces is longer than nine months and less than a year."

It is understood that the final aim is for Britain to maintain no more than a training element for local security forces in south-eastern Iraq, based well

away from areas such as Basra. But a military source said: "There is no question of Britain formally announcing a complete withdrawal from Iraq any time in the foreseeable future. Numbers will be simply be run down. We still have a few hundred troops in Bosnia, more than 10 years after the war ended."

A Whitehall source confirmed that a meeting was held in London on 23 January between Britain, the US, Australia and Japan to co-ordinate troop withdrawals from Iraq. Most of the Australian and Japanese troops in the country are in the four provinces of south-eastern Iraq which are under British command.

Adam Price MP, a leading critic of the Government's policies in Iraq, who helped to expose the secret blueprint, feared a partial withdrawal could simply expose the remaining troops to more danger. "The experience of Afghanistan teaches us the dangers of these so-called staged withdrawals," he said. "A reduced force is left incapable of delivering security to either themselves or the Iraqis while leaving the insurgents with a symbolic target."

The Secretary of State for Defence, John Reid, is set to make a keynote speech on Iraq on Tuesday in which he is likely to hint at the start of a pull-out. British defence chiefs are expected to hold a meeting in March on troop deployments.

An account of the withdrawal agreement leaked to the Japanese media said the country would begin withdrawing its forces in mid-March, completing its pull-out by the end of May.

The official Japanese response was to deny there was a specific time-frame for the plan, and the Australian defence minister said Canberra was awaiting formal word from Tokyo.

Despite Whitehall efforts to dampen speculation, further reports in the Japanese media still indicate a swift draw-down of British forces.