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Iraq Transition

Reports: UK to begin withdrawing Iraq troops

Story Highlights

• British withdrawal comes as U.S. adds more troops into Iraq
• White House portrays British move as a sign of progress
• British troops that remain will train Iraqi military and police forces
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair will order nearly half the British troops in Iraq home by the end of 2007, British news outlets reported early Wednesday.

Blair will tell the House of Commons Wednesday that 1,500 soldiers will return to Britain within weeks, and 3,000 will follow suit by the end of the year, The Sun newspaper reported. Britain has a contingent of 7,000 in Iraq now, based mostly in the southern city of Basra.

"Control of the south of the country, unaffected by the civil war raging around Baghdad, will be handed back to the Iraqis," the Sun reported on page one. (Watch what may be the factors behind the decision Video)

The move comes a month after Blair said that an "arbitrary timetable" for withdrawal "would send the most disastrous signal to the people we are fighting in Iraq."

His anticipated announcement comes as the United States sends more troops into Iraq in an effort to put down a wave of sectarian violence in Baghdad and pacify Anbar province, the heart of the Sunni insurgency.

Blair had discussed his plans with U.S. President George W. Bush during a videoconference Tuesday morning, the White House said. It portrayed the news from Britain as a sign of progress in the nearly 4-year-old war.

"We're pleased that conditions in Basra have improved sufficiently that they are able to transition more control to the Iraqis," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

"The United States shares the same goal of turning responsibility over to the Iraqi Security Forces and reducing the number of American troops in Iraq."

A senior U.S. administration official compared Blair's plan to the one offered by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group in December.

In the coming months, the British military will consolidate its bases in the Basra area and in some cases hand them over to Iraqi authorities, Bush administration officials familiar with the British plan said.

This will enable British troops to focus on training Iraqi police and troops, while Iraqi units take a greater role in patrolling Basra's streets.

Opposition to the war has hurt Blair politically, with his ruling Labor Party losing seats in Parliament and in local elections in the past two years. The prime minister announced in September that he would leave office within a year.

More than 130 British troops have been killed in Iraq.

In January, when the United States announced plans to increase its contingent in Iraq by more than 20,000, British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said London would not be following suit.

Britain contributed about 46,000 soldiers, sailors and air force personnel to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. More than half those troops were withdrawn within two months of the invasion, leaving the remaining contingent in Basra.

Report of the withdrawal comes three days after reports that Prince Harry would deploy with his unit to Iraq in April or May. (Full story)

His father, Prince Charles, was a pilot with the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy.

Harry's grandfather, Prince Philip, had a distinguished career in the Royal Navy. Harry's uncle, Prince Andrew, was a Royal Navy pilot and served in the Falklands War against Argentina 25 years ago.

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux contributed to this report.

British troops secure the area around a roadside bomb in Basra last month. British forces are reportedly pulling out of Iraq.

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