Monday, October 08, 2007


Gordon Brown to make cuts in troop numbers

(The Guardian) - Gordon Brown will today offer the prospect of deep cuts early next year in the number of British troops in Iraq as well as asylum to some Iraqis, including interpreters, who have helped the army there over the last four years. He is also expected to outline an aid and investment package to boost the economy and quality of life of those who live in a region which has the potential of being one of the richest in the Middle East.
The prime minister said in his BBC interview yesterday that his statement on Iraq to MPs was "not simply about what's happening by Christmas" - a reference to his hotly disputed announcement in Baghdad last week that the number of British troops in southern Iraq would be cut by 1,000 by then. His Commons statement, he said, would be "far more comprehensive". It would cover "security, political reconciliation, economic reconstruction". He added: "And there are other aspects of what we can do to improve the security of our military forces and those who help us on the ground."
The prime minister is expected to say that Britain will hand over responsibility for security throughout Basra province to Iraqi forces within the next two months. In that time, the total number of British troops will fall to 4,500. Though this is 1,000 less than the existing official full complement, a 500 cut in that figure had already been announced and 250 of those had already flown home. The number is likely to be reduced by at least a further 1,500 next May, leaving a force of 3,000. But Mr Brown is expected to hold out the option of basing most of those in Kuwait, leaving a much smaller garrison at Basra airport, Britain's last remaining base in Iraq.
British troops have already ended their combat role in southern Iraq. In future, they will take on what is called an "overwatch" role - helping Iraqi security forces in the event of a crisis. They will also continue to train Iraqi forces, carry out patrols along the border with Iran in an attempt to hinder weapons smuggling, and help protect convoys delivering supplies from Kuwait to US forces in northern and central Iraq.
The number of attacks on British forces has fallen dramatically since the army handed over to Iraqi forces the Basra Palace, the last British base in the city, last month. British military commanders have recently been holding talks with Shia militia, including the radical cleric Moqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army, and released militia members suspected of being involved in attacks on British troops, in what they call a new reconciliation process.
British commanders appear to have squared the US, who, despite allegations of indisciplined, trigger-happy employees of the Blackwater private security company, is expected to hire more private contractors to protect supply convoys. However, British defence officials remain concerned about the prospect of US forces having to "fill in" for absent British soldiers in the event of renewed heavy fighting in the area. That is one risk British military chiefs want to avoid.

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