UK's Brown in Iraq, looks to cut troops

UK prime minister Gordon Brown arrived in Iraq for talks with his counterpart Nuri al-Maliki and other Iraqi officials, his third visit since taking office in 2007. He set out four objectives ahead of a future withdrawal of Britain's 4,000 troops.


British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, speaking after talks with his Iraqi counterpart in Baghdad, said on Saturday he wanted to cut the number of Britain's troop in Iraq but would not set some artificial timetable for this. 

"Our intention is to reduce our troop numbers but I am not going to set out an artificial timetable," Brown told reporters in the Iraqi capital where he was meeting Iraqi leaders to assess the country's security and economic development.

After a nearly hour-long meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, Brown went into a meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. He also met several Iraqi MPs.

Before heading to the southern city of Basra, the British premier told a news conference that he saw four stages as crucial to the development of Iraq, particularly in the Basra region where Britain's 4,000 troops are based.

"We have set four clear objectives for what we want to achieve in those areas where we have had responsibility," Brown said.

"The first is to train Iraqi forces themselves so that they are in a position to take full responsibility for the security of the Iraqi people and for the area.

"The second is to make sure that we can push forward the local government elections and train also the police," he added.

Focusing particularly on Basra improvements, Brown said: "The third is to pursue the economic and social development of the Basra area so that the people can enjoy prosperity, jobs and businesses.

"And the fourth is the airport for which we have responsibility (which) will be transferred, where it can be, from military to civilian use."

Brown told reporters that "there have been great steps forward in all these areas.

He described them as "the building blocks for the future. It is absolutely crucial to complete these tasks."

Brown's spokesman earlier said that the "key aim (of the visit) is to speak to both the troops on the ground and the Iraqi leaders ahead of a statement to parliament next week."

An Iraqi government statement earlier on Saturday said Brown was expected to discuss bilateral relations and also "study the future of the British presence in Basra."

This is Brown's third visit to Iraq since he took over from Tony Blair as premier on June 27 last year.

His visit comes a day after Washington and Baghdad agreed to set a "time-horizon" for the withdrawal of US troops as part of a security pact between the two countries.

The 57-year-old Brown, who spent 10 years as finance minister under Blair, wants to help kick-start the economy in Basra and boost the southern oil city's status as a regional economic hub.

British commanders on the ground believe conditions are right for a surge in economic development, with a rise in prosperity likely to help cement stability in the south.

Local elections are slated for October 1 with Britain stressing reconciliation and keen to see provincial councils become more representative.

In his last major statement on Iraq in October, Brown said Britain's strategy in Iraq was firstly to ensure political harmony, then security and then "work for an economy in Iraq where people have a stake in the future."

Since 2003, Britain has pledged a total commitment of 744 million pounds (1.49 billion dollars, 940 million euros) towards reconstruction in Iraq.

London had intended to reduce troop numbers to 2,500 earlier this year, though conditions on the ground have not yet permitted this to happen.

Jock Stirrup, Britain's head of armed forces, said on Thursday he expected the numbers to drop in the first half of 2009.

Brown last visited Iraq on December 9 to announce the December 16 handover of security control of Basra province.

Following that handover British troops have transferred security control to local forces in all four provinces which were under their supervision.

A total of 176 British troops have died in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion. At least 136 were killed by hostile action.

British troop numbers involved in the Iraq operation peaked at 46,000 in March and April 2003 for the invasion.

By the end of the 2006-2007 financial year, Britain had spent five billion pounds (10 billion dollars) on the war in Iraq.

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