Military planners doubtful of early Iraq withdrawal

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A British force of 2,500 troops may have to stay in Iraq for the foreseeable future and additional numbers could even be sent as reinforcements if the security situation deteriorates, a senior British commander warned yesterday.

While outlining plans for withdrawal from Iraq, Gordon Brown had said that, although a 2,500-strong reserve force would still be in Iraq by next spring, its deployment would be further reviewed. Senior officials, meanwhile, had hinted that no troops may be left by the end of next year. But General Peter Wall, deputy chief of the defence staff, revealed that military planners did not think it was possible to draw down numbers below the 2,500 mark. "I wouldn't see the scope for wholesale reductions from the numbers that we have described," he said. General Wall also pointed out that a force of another 500 troops were still based in a neighbouring country as part of the Iraq reserve force.

Confirming that additional troops could be sent from the UK to Iraq if needed, General Wall said that the preferred choice would be for Iraqi forces to deal with any emergency. Appearing before the House of Commons defence committee, he added that some back-up units could be moved to another country in the region if that were "logistically advantageous".

The Prime Minister's announcement over troop cuts, in what was then thought of as run-up to a snap election, led to charges of "spin". He was also accused of "sleight of hand" when he declared that 1,000 of them would be home by Christmas, as the Ministry of Defence had stated three months previously that 500 would be returning.

During a visit to Basra this summer, defence committee members were told by officers that 5,000 troops was the minimum required to carry out operations and maintain adequate protection, according to the Labour MP Kevan Jones. Another member, the Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, said before yesterday's hearing: "What are we going to be doing with just 2,500 troops? We have been told that 5,000 was the bare minimum and anything below that would be unviable."

Giving evidence to the committee, the Defence Secretary Des Browne denied that the cut in British troop numbers had been imposed on commanders by ministers. "It is not by any stretch of the imagination a political decision," he said. "No figure was given to the military by politicians. The process doesn't work like that at all."

Mr Browne refused to be drawn on the possibility that British forces could withdraw completely while there was still a substantial US military presence in the country. "There is such an element of speculation in that question I would hesitate to engage with it," he said. Although "surge" operations by US forces are due to be scaled down from next spring, a substantial military commitment is expected to continue in Iraq. Mr Browne said the plan had been discussed with US commanders and with the administration in Washington. "This process of open transfer and engagement with them... has enhanced the relationship with... America," he said. "Our relationship with the Americans in relation to this has never been stronger."

British officials have, however, criticised the British decision to pull out of Basra City, claiming that inaction by UK forces had let the area descend into "gangland warfare" between Shia militias.

UK commanders have also disclosed that a previous attempt to leave the Basra base in April failed because the US refused to move its consulate out of the complex and threatened to send troops from Baghdad to fill the "vacuum" left by the British.