Tony Blair yesterday signalled that British troops could begin to leave Iraq within six months as he made a surprise visit to Basra to tell servicemen they should be "very, very proud" of their role in its transition to democracy. In a fleeting visit to the British-controlled south of Iraq, the Prime Minister told soldiers that they had dealt terrorism a "huge blow" by creating the conditions for the election earlier this month which will now lead to a full Iraqi government.
While he said the new ministers could decide whether coalition troops stay or go, he gave his clearest sign yet that the Ministry of Defence plans to start winding down troops from next summer. Mr Blair arrived in Kuwait on Wednesday night and was taken to Basra International Airport in a low-flying Merlin helicopter, with a machine-gunner posted in front to engage any snipers.
Dressed in open-necked shirt and chinos, Mr Blair mingled with troops, speaking to members of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. He was serenaded by a group of Fijian soldiers in what their commanders called a spontaneous gesture. He then broke through the ranks of British troops to meet Iraqi mechanics and engineers working on the base, before addressing soldiers from the top of a tank carrier. The remaining task, he said, was to train Iraqi security forces, "and then, of course, we can eventually draw down our own capability with the agreement of the Iraqi government which will be formed following elections".
Mr Blair added: "The importance of this is probably greater today than it has ever been. If Iraq does stabilise and become a democracy then the region is more safe, our own country is more safe, because international terrorism will have been dealt a huge blow."
Asked later by reporters if six months was a viable timetable for a withdrawal to begin, Mr Blair made no protestation. "If everything goes to plan," he said. "It is our strategy, we want to draw down our own forces." He added that "the security situation today is a completely different situation from the situation a year ago". British diplomatic sources have told The Scotsman that, since the summer, officials have been planning a province-by-province troop withdrawal, with soldiers left in the most troublesome areas for at least two years. Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, also made an unannounced visit to Baghdad yesterday, where he signalled that the Pentagon will allow troop numbers to fall below a 138,000 "baseline".
The US has 160,000 troops in central and northern Iraq, headquartered in Baghdad, and Britain about 8,500 in four southern provinces, controlled from Basra. The al-Muthanna and Dhiqar provinces have been peaceful for months and earmarked for "Iraqi-isation" by transferring coalition troops to more troublesome areas, reports Scotsman. I.L.