Global Policy Forum

Brown Signals Iraq Troops Withdrawal


By Deborah Summers and Patrick Wintour

July 22, 2008

Gordon Brown today paved the way for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, promising a "fundamental change" of mission in the first half of 2009. In a Commons statement, the prime minister heaped praise on the work of British soldiers and insisted the security situation in Basra had been "transformed". "We will continue to reduce the number of British troops in Iraq," Brown said. "Just as last year we moved from combat to 'overwatch', we would expect a further fundamental change of mission in the first months of 2009 as we make the transition to a long term bilateral partnership with Iraq, similar to the normal relationships which our military forces have with other important countries in the region." Brown said that violent incidents across Iraq were at their lowest since 2004.

Britain currently has around 4,000 troops based on the outskirts of the southern city of Basra. Brown previously postponed plans to withdraw 1,500 soldiers due to a spike in militia violence. Parliament's defense select committee has urged Brown to keep a core of troops in Iraq for years to come to continue training Iraqi police and soldiers. Today Brown held back from giving an "artificial timetable" for troop withdrawals but gave the impression that progress is such that a withdrawal is possible within two years.

His Commons statement came as a glowing report from the defense select committee, published today, claims "a high degree of security has been restored in Basra", the centre of UK operations in Iraq. "The preconditions are in place for political progress and economic recovery," the committee says, in a report that is far more optimistic than some of its recent assessments. Brown, who visited Iraq at the weekend, said Britain was making progress in training Iraqi security forces, and establishing the ability of those forces to employ sophisticated counter-insurgency tactics. The select committee was told by British and Iraqi security forces that operations against Basra militias largely loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr in March had "resulted in a seismic shift in the balance of power" and that "a large part of its importance lay in the fact that it had been conducted with Iraqi forces in the lead".

The select committee also says that although parts of Basra are not yet under government control, it will be hard for Sadr to regain political dominance since his movement cannot participate in the provincial elections while he runs an avowed militia movement. The committee also warns that the influence of Iran remains a major factor, adding that the border "remains porous, allowing military and weaponry to flow easily from one country to another".

The Tory leader, David Cameron, today welcomed the announcement but warned against "making premature announcements about troop withdrawals which cannot be met".

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