LONDON – Britain announced cuts in its forces in Iraq on Monday by 10 percent and has begun handing over their duties to Iraqi security forces, despite spasms of violence in recent weeks that have pushed the country closer to civil war.
Defense Secretary John Reid told the House of Commons that the reduction of 800 soldiers was possible because Iraqi security forces are becoming more capable of handling security in Iraq's southern Basra region.
"This is a significant reduction which is based largely on the ability of the Iraqis themselves to participate and defend themselves against terrorism," Reid said. "But there is a long, long way to go."
The move was announced despite growing doubts about the reliability of Iraqi security forces in the Basra area, especially the police, which British officials believe have been heavily infiltrated by Shiite militiamen.
Following the Feb. 22 blast at a Shiite shrine in central Iraq, Basra police failed to stop attacks on Sunni mosques or prevent gunmen from breaking into a prison, hauling out 12 inmates, and shooting them to death.
Reid said the increase in violence had no impact on the decision to pull troops from the region.
Nadim Shehadi, a fellow in the Middle East program at the Chatham House think-tank, said the decision to withdraw and the deterioration of the situation are not related. He said it was "too easy to jump to conclusions to tie the two together."
This is not to say, however, that things were going well, he said.
"It's no secret that British troops are less and less in control of the situation vis-a-vis militia, especially in places like Basra," he said. "There, not only do the militia have more control, but they have infiltrated the security services, too."
British troops have also suffered the fallout from video images that appeared to show soldiers dragging several Iraqis into a compound and beating them with their fists and batons after a street demonstration.
The images have soured relations between Iraqi officials and the 8,000 British troops based in Iraq. The video allegedly was shot in the flashpoint town of Amarah, 150 miles north of Basra.
After the videotape emerged, Reid urged the public to be "slow to condemn" British forces in Iraq. Two regional councils in Iraq -- in Basra and Maysan -- then refused to cooperate with the British army and demanded an immediate handover of power from the British.
Reid acknowledged there were problems.
"And I have been absolutely clear that we are not yet at the stage where whole provinces could be taken under the responsibility of Iraqi security forces," he said. "We continue to assess that. When those conditions are met, I will make another announcement to this house."
Conservative Party lawmaker Gerald Howarth said it would be "folly" to withdraw before Iraqi forces can provide adequate security. He sought an assurance, which Reid later gave, that the drawdown was not motivated by the need to find additional troops to send to Afghanistan.
Britain had 46,000 military personnel in Iraq during combat operations in March and April 2003. That dropped to 18,000 in May 2004, and to 8,500 at the end of 2005.
At the time of the last withdrawal of British troops in October, Reid said there were 190,000 members of the Iraqi security forces trained and equipped. Now the total is 235,000, and 5,000 more join every month, he said.
The Iraqi army has more than 110 operational combat battalions engaged in counterinsurgency operations, of which 59 were assessed as being "in the lead" or capable of independent operations, Reid said.
British troops, which are focused primarily in southern Iraq, will continue to have a presence in all four provinces they are responsible for, Reid said.
"Let me stress that the reductions I have announced are not part of a handover of security responsibility at the operational level," Reid said. "Our commitment to the Iraqi people and government remains total. Our commitment to the coalition remains certain."
In Washington, Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, said the British decision was made in coordination with coalition forces.
"The capabilities of the Iraqi security forces continue to improve and make progress, despite the violence, despite the tensions that exist in Iraq. And so I think that those decisions are being made based on those circumstances," he said.
Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said it was "each nation's prerogative and decision on how to best support the coalition effort."
In London, some people questioned about the withdrawal were pleased, saying Britain should not have gone into the region in the first place.
"I think it's very sensible, and it's about time," said Sha Ali Khan, a 55-year-old accountant in southeastern London. "It was a mistake, and it's best to recognize mistakes, even if you're late recognizing them."