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UNITED KINGDOM - IRAQ

UK Iraq withdrawal may begin in March

2 min

A Ministry of Defence source says Britain could start withdrawing most of its 4,100 troops from Iraq in March 2009 because of significant progress made in the security situation in the city of Basra, where most UK troops have been serving.

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REUTERS - Britain could start withdrawing most of its remaining 4,100 troops from Iraq in March because "significant progress" has been made in improving security, the government said on Wednesday.

 

A Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said the progress made in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where the majority of the British troops in Iraq have been serving, would enable "a fundamental change of mission in early 2009".

 

The spokesman would not confirm or deny the specific date of March 2009 cited in British newspaper reports as the start date for the final pullout, but said:

 

"Our position remains that we will judge it on military advice at the time, but there has been significant progress."

 

She said that thanks to Iraqi, British and coalition efforts, Basra was a city "which has now been transformed".

 

"As such, we are now expecting to see a fundamental change of mission in early 2009," she added in a statement.

 

The BBC and several newspapers, quoting an unnamed senior defence source, said a force of several thousand U.S. troops would replace the British troops and move into their base at the airport on the outskirts of Basra.

 

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair was U.S. President George W. Bush's strongest ally over the U.S.-led March 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. Blair sent 45,000 troops to join the U.S.-led military action but the war cost him public support.

 

Figures compiled through late November show 176 British forces have died in Iraq since the invasion.

 

Gordon Brown, who took over from Blair in June last year, has reduced troop levels in Iraq and has signalled that he sees almost all British soldiers leaving Iraq by the middle of next year.

 

Bringing the troops home could also give him a boost at the next election, due by mid-2010.

 

In October, Defence Secretary John Hutton said British troops were on track to complete their mission in Iraq early next year.

 

The Guardian newspaper said the withdrawal would start in March, and last troops would Basra in June. The Times said there would still be some anxiety about possible violence during provincial elections due to be held on Jan. 31.

 

United States General David Petraeus said this week that violence in Iraq in the past few weeks had fallen to its lowest level since mid-2003 and that security gains, while still at risk of reversal, were less fragile than before.

 

 

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