LONDON – Britain said Monday it expects to withdraw thousands of its 7,000 military personnel from Iraq by the end of next year, while Poland and Italy announced the impending withdrawal of their remaining troops.
Polish President Lech Kaczynski said his country, a U.S. ally in Iraq and Afghanistan, would pull its remaining 900 soldiers out of Iraq by the end of 2007. And Italian Premier Romano Prodi said the last of Italy's soldiers in Iraq — some 60-70 troops — will return home this week, ending the Italian contingent's presence in the south of the country after more than three years.
British Defense Secretary Des Browne was the second senior official in recent days to talk of reducing the number of British troops in Iraq. In a speech to the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Browne also warned Iran that it faces increasing isolation if it does not use its influence in Iraq constructively.
Last week, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said Britain may be able to hand over security responsibility in the southern port city of Basra by the spring of 2007. Britain also hopes to hand security control over to the Iraqis in the province of Maysan on the Iranian border in January.
"We have said that we and the Iraqis hope they will be ready to take over Maysan in January," Browne said. "We have said — and the foreign secretary reiterated last week — that we hope they will be ready to take over Basra in the spring.
"If both of these go to plan, we will be able to start drawing down our forces."
Browne said that handing over security would not mean a complete British withdrawal.
"I do not believe it is right to give precise numbers, nor to assume what the next 12 months will hold.
"But I can tell you that by the end of next year I expect numbers of British forces in Iraq to be significantly lower — by a matter of thousands. The planning for this has been going on for some months."
Any troop pullback, he said, would be "driven not by arbitrary deadlines but by reality on the ground."
"We will stay as long as we are making a positive difference, and as long as the Iraqi government need our support," Browne said.
Sectarian divisions in Iraq will not be resolved quickly, Browne said, but he argued against dividing the country into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish sections, warning that doing so would destabilize the region further.
The defense secretary also called on Iraq's neighbors to support efforts to calm the violence.
"Even Syria, whose motives the international community has often had cause to question, has shown signs of constructive engagement," Browne said.
Syria's foreign minister has indicated his country is willing to help stabilize Iraq, and on a visit to Baghdad last week he announced the full restoration of diplomatic relations.
Iran's behavior, Browne said, remained troubling. The U.S., Britain and others have accused Iran of providing support to Shiite militias blamed for much of the sectarian killing in Iraq. Iran has denied the claims.
Iran "has influence inside Iraq, the power to turn up or turn down the heat, to turn on or turn off the dialogue. It is not using that influence well," Browne said.
"Iran's interest is in a stable and non-aggressive Iraq," he added.
"So the message to Iran is simple. Be a constructive partner, help yourself as well as the wider region — or face increasing isolation."