Gordon Brown's pledge to bring home 1,500 more British troops from Iraq by the spring has been postponed indefinitely because of the deteriorating security situation in Basra.
The Defence Secretary, Des Browne, told MPs yesterday that the UK force in the country would have to be maintained at the current level of 4,100, and the exit timetable might have to be revised. Ministers became convinced that the pullout would have to be halted after last week's offensive by Iraqi security forces against Shia militants in Iraq's second city, he said.
Mr Browne said he would update the Commons on British troop levels later this month. However, senior military sources said the next rotation of troops – in May – would see roughly the same number arrive as they are replacing.
The spring withdrawal promised by Gordon Brown last October, in his first visit to Iraq as Prime Minister, drew accusations of "spin" and was seen as the beginning of a series of political miscalculations. In the same speech, he said he would bring 1,000 soldiers back home by Christmas – after the Defence Secretary had already announced a reduction of 500 several months previously. As it turned out, the Christmas withdrawal was also delayed.
Mr Browne said yesterday: "Further reductions might not be possible at the rate envisaged in the October announcement, although it remains our clear... plan.
"In the light of last week's events, however, it is prudent that we pause any further reductions while the current situation is unfolding. It is absolutely right that military commanders review plans when conditions on the ground change."
British troops left their base in Basra city last September and the Iraqis took over security in December. Mr Browne described the situation as "fluid" and said the level of fighting in the city had fallen. However, the frequency of attacks on the British contingent, now based mainly at the airport, has risen sharply and the Iraqi offensive in Basra is widely seen as a failure.