LONDON – Britain will withdraw around 1,600 troops from Iraq over the coming months and aims to cut its 7,100 troop levels to below 5,000 by late summer — if local forces can secure the southern part of the country, Prime Minister Tony Blair said Wednesday.
British troops will remain in Iraq until at least 2008 and work to secure the Iran-Iraq border and maintain supply routes to U.S. and coalition troops in central Iraq, Blair told the House of Commons.
"The actual reduction in forces will be from the present 7,100 — itself down from over 9,000 two years ago and 40,000 at the time of the conflict — to roughly 5,500," Blair said.
He told lawmakers that "increasingly our role will be support and training, and our numbers will be able to reduce accordingly."
The Bush administration said Wednesday that Britain's decision to withdraw 1,600 troops from Iraq is a positive sign that fits with the overall strategy for stabilizing the country.
"The British have done what is really the plan for the country as a whole, which is to transfer security responsibility to the Iraqis as the situation permits," Rice said at a press conference in Berlin.
Blair said Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had agreed to the plan.
Dependent on Iraqi capability Britain would draw down further, "possibly to below 5,000" once a base at Basra Palace is transferred to Iraqi control in late summer, Blair said.
"What all of this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be. But it does mean that the next chapter in Basra's history can be written by Iraqis," Blair said.
Denmark also announced Wednesday it will withdraw its 460-strong contingent from southern Iraq by August. The decision had been made with the Iraqi government and Britain, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.
And Lithuania is "seriously considering" withdrawing its 53 troops from Iraq, a government spokeswoman said. The Baltic country is considering not replacing the contingent when its mission ends in August, defense ministry spokeswoman Ruta Apeitkyte said.
Blair said "the situation in Basra is very different from Baghdad — there is no Sunni insurgency, no Al Qaeda base, little Sunni on Shia violence," adding that the southern city is nothing like "the challenge of Baghdad."
The Iraqi capital had suffered from an "orgy of terrorism unleashed upon it in order to crush any possibility of it functioning," he said.
"If Baghdad cannot be secured, the future of the country is in peril. The enemies of Iraq understand that. We understand it," Blair said.
U.S. President George W. Bush and Blair talked by secure video link Tuesday morning about the proposals, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. Bush views Britain's troop cutbacks as "a sign of success" in Iraq, he said.
"While the United Kingdom is maintaining a robust force in southern Iraq, we're pleased that conditions in Basra have improved sufficiently that they are able to transition more control to the Iraqis," Johndroe said.
Besides the United States, Britain and Denmark, the major partners in the coalition include South Korea (2,300 troops), Poland (900), Australia and Georgia (both 800) and Romania (600), according to the Brookings Institution.
The U.S., meanwhile, is implementing an increase of 21,000 more troops for Iraq, mostly in and around the capital. Analysts claim there is little point in boosting forces in the largely Shiite south of Iraq, where most non-U.S. coalition troops are concentrated.
Yet as more countries draw down or pull out, it could create a security vacuum if radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stirs up trouble.
A British withdrawal is not likely to have much effect on the stepped-up U.S. operation in Baghdad or the war against the Sunni-led insurgency focusing on Anbar province west of the Iraqi capital.
"We want to bring our troops homes as well," Johndroe said. "It's the model we want to emulate, to turn over more responsibilities to Iraqis and bring our troops home. That's the goal and always has been."
Blair, who has said he will step down by September after a decade in power, has seen his foreign-policy record overshadowed by his role as Bush's leading ally in the unpopular war.
As recently as late last month, Blair rejected opposition calls to withdraw British troops by October, calling such a plan irresponsible.
"That would send the most disastrous signal to the people that we are fighting in Iraq. It's a policy that, whatever its superficial attractions may be, is actually deeply irresponsible," Blair said on Jan. 24 in the Commons.