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UK troops to start Iraq withdrawal by early 2009

  • Story Highlights
  • Gordon Brown: UK will start troop withdrawal from Iraq by early 2009
  • UK has 4,100 troops in southern Iraq, handed over Basra in December
  • Brown hopeful Iraqis will be able to take over Basra Airport by the end of 2008
  • Cites a "marked improvement" in Basra's security conditions
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Tuesday his country will withdraw some of its 4,100 troops stationed in Iraq by the beginning of next year.

Brown -- in comments before the House of Commons and on the prime minister's Web site -- didn't specify the numbers of troops that might be brought home.

But he said Britain "will continue to reduce the number of British troops in Iraq" as progress is made in various areas, such as strides in training and mentoring. British troops in Iraq have been stationed in the southern Basra province.

"Future decisions will be based -- as I have always said -- on advice of our military commanders on the ground," Brown said.

"But I can tell the House today that just as last year we moved from combat to 'over watch,' 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."

Britain has been working to transition security duties to Iraqis. Britain handed over Basra to provincial control in December and "this allowed us to reduce troop numbers in southern Iraq from 5,500 in September to 4,500."

He said a planned reduction had been delayed while British and American troops supported the Iraqi government's offensive in Basra during the spring against Shiite militias.

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"Since then we have responded to changing needs and embedded over 800 UK personnel within the Iraqi command structure - at Divisional, Brigade and Battalion level.

"And the focus of the 4,100 UK forces still in southern Iraq is now on completing the task of training and mentoring the 1st Division of the Iraqi Army in Basra --- and it is right that as we do so we continue for the next few months to provide support at these levels," he said.

Brown mentioned other "military tasks," such as completing "the preparation of Basra airport for transfer to Iraqi control; and continuing to develop the capacity of the Iraqi Navy and Marines so they can protect Iraq's oil platforms, territorial waters and Mm Quasar port --- all critical to Iraq's economic future."

He said he is hopeful that Iraqis "will be able to take over development of Basra Airport by the end of this year" and that "the first stage of the general training and mentoring of the combat troops of the 1st Division in Basra to be complete around the turn of the year."

He said as the focus changes from training such combat troops, Britain "will then move forward to the specific task of mentoring headquarters and specialist staffs."

"Our military commanders expect the 1st Division in Basra to be fully trained during the first months of next year," he said.

Brown cited a "marked improvement" in Basra's security conditions.

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"The most important development is that the improvements we have seen have been increasingly Iraqi-led. Security responsibility for 10 of 18 provinces has now transferred to Iraqi control, including all four provinces in Britain's area of operations," Brown said.

He cited the growth of anti-insurgent Sunni groups opposing al Qaeda in Iraq and military successes against Shiite militias, the passage of legislation that promotes national reconciliation, and economic development strides.

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