Prime Minister Gordon Brown played up an improving security situation in Iraq yesterday and said the number of British troops there could continue to come down as key security tasks were completed.
Brown told parliament the 4,100 British troops serving in Iraq would stay for the “next few months” but said he expected to see a “fundamental change of mission” early next year.
Brown said attacks were down sharply in the southern region of Basra — from 200 a month last summer to around five a month in April – and that Britain’s forces would now focus on training Iraqi troops before drawing down.
“We expect a further fundamental change of mission in the first months of 2009 as we make the transition to a long-term bilateral relationship with Iraq, similar to other relationships that our military forces have with other important countries in the region,” he said.
“The defence secretary and our military commanders will now work with the Iraqi government to formulate agreement on the details of such a partnership — including the necessary legal basis.”
Last year, Britain said it intended to reduce the number of troops it had in Iraq to about 2,500 by the beginning of this year, but that plan had to be put on hold after renewed violence erupted across southern Iraq, particularly in and around Basra.
Rather than again committing to an arbitrary deadline for troop withdrawals, Brown said he would now work with military commanders and allies such as America to determine the best time to withdraw the forces that remain.
The more cautious line follows a visit by Brown to Iraq last weekend, and talks with American officials on the issue.
US President George W. Bush has made it clear America would rather Britain did not pre-announce deadlines for pulling its troops out of the country.