Global Policy Forum

UK Troops ‘Could Begin Iraq Withdrawal in Weeks’


By James Sturcke

March 7, 2006

British troops could start leaving Iraq within weeks, the army's most senior officer in the country said today. In an interview with the Telegraph, Lieutenant General Nick Houghton said a gradual withdrawal needed to begin soon in order to reassure Iraqis that British troops would not become a resident force.

Lt Gen Houghton said most UK personnel should be home by summer 2008, adding that the process of reducing Britain's 8,000-strong force in Iraq would happen in four stages, due to begin in the spring or by the end of the summer. However, he admitted that withdrawal depended on the formation of a national unity government in Iraq and sectarian tensions not worsening further.

The prime minister's official spokeman stressed that there were "all sorts of possible scenarios", adding: "The important thing ... is it is all condition based. Its is based first and foremost on the quality, as well as the quantity, of Iraqi troops. It is based on the view of the Iraqi government, and it is based on the situation on the ground. All of these are factors which have to be taken into account, so there is no strict timetable."

Lt Gen Houghton told the Telegraph there was "a fine line between staying too long and leaving too soon. A military transition over two years has a reasonable chance of avoiding the pitfalls of overstaying our welcome, but gives us the best opportunity of consolidating the Iraqi security forces," he said. Lt Gen Houghton, whose five-month tour of duty in Iraq is about to end, said the recent bombing of a golden-domed Shia shrine in Samarra "has not in any way altered the plan and its potential timescale".

He said the first stage of withdrawal would be the handover of security control to the Iraqis in Maysan and Muthanna provinces. British troops will increasingly stay in barracks, emerging to provide support and training when necessary.

The plan - which Lt Gen Houghton stressed was flexible - envisages a similar handover taking place in Basra and Dhiqar provinces in spring 2007, paving the way for all but a few hundred British troops to leave Iraq by mid-2008. "It is reversible to an extent as there will be residual coalition forces present who can maintain a low profile," he told the Telegraph. "There may be a need to go back in somewhere. I hope not."

The defence secretary, John Reid, last month said there could be "significantly fewer" UK troops in Iraq by next year. Meanwhile, Mr Reid's Australian counterpart, Brendan Nelson, said his country's forces would stay in southern Iraq until at least next year. "It's obvious that whilst a lot has been achieved, there's a lot more to be done," he said. "We are determined to work with the Iraqis and our allies in the coalition, and we are determined to see it through."

Mr Nelson's comments came as a surprise to some after the country's defence force chief, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, told the senate troops would begin returning home from the middle of this year. Elsewhere, a poll for the Washington Post newspaper and ABC News in the US found 80% of Americans believed fighting between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq would lead to civil war.

Half those questioned said the US should begin withdrawing its forces, with one in six calling for immediate withdrawal of all troops. The survey also found growing doubts that the Bush administration had a strategy in Iraq. Two-thirds of those quesioned said they did not think the president, George Bush, had a clear plan for Iraq - the highest level of doubt recorded since the question was first asked three years ago.

Insurgents attacked two police patrols in Baqouba, north of Baghdad, today, killing one person and injuring three others, police said. A car bomb exploded at 8.15am (0515 GMT), missed a patrol but injuring a civilian bystander. Fifteen minutes later, gunmen fired on another patrol as it parked near Hayat hospital, killing one policeman and injuring two others.


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