British Defense Secretary Says Iraq Troop Withdrawal to Be Postponed

Defense Secretary Des Brown said Tuesday that Britain has postponed a plan to withdraw around 1,500 troops from Iraq, following an upsurge in militia related violence.

Browne said military commanders have delayed a plan to reduce British troop numbers from 4,000 to 2,500, which was outlined by Prime Minister Gordon Brown late last year.

"It is prudent that we pause any further reductions while the current situation is unfolding," Browne told the House of Commons.

The decision follows a surge in violence that has swept Baghdad, the southern city of Basra and other areas after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched a crackdown against Shiite militias.

Street battles have left more than 200 dead, including civilians, Iraqi troops and militants. British troops have been forced back into a combat role for the first time since last year, firing artillery during clashes on Saturday.

Militant followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have been battling Iraqi and coalition forces in Basra — Iraq's oil hub — since Tuesday last week.

British troops are stationed at an air base on the fringe of Basra after they withdrew from their last base in the city center last September.

"At this stage we intend to keep our forces at their current levels of around 4,000 as we work with our coalition partners and with the Iraqis to assess future requirements," Browne said.

He gave no timetable to reduce British troop numbers in the future, but said he will update lawmakers later this month.