British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Monday that Britain would cut its military contingent in Iraq. The reduction will start next spring. In addition, a British official said later that there may not be any British troops remaining in Iraq by the end of 2008.
Brown said Britain would lower troop levels to 2,500 by mid-2008 and move logistics staff to neighboring states - moves likely to woo a public weary of the war.
The British leader was hoping the announcement would help boost his popularity, which was dented last week after apparent dithering about calling a national poll.
Aides had stoked election rumors for weeks, particularly as lawmakers and activists gathered for a series of political party conferences. But Brown scrapped the plans Saturday, as opinion polls suggested his early wave of public support had waned.
Brown told lawmakers Monday his Iraq plan follows the success of the U.S. surge in troop numbers this summer and efforts by Iraqis to drive suspected al-Qaida militants from havens in Anbar province, west of Baghdad.
He said decisions on further cuts would be made once the reduction to 2,500 was complete, rejecting a call from opposition lawmakers to set a timetable to withdraw all forces.
Officials said the latest troop cut would be complete by April, and that a total withdrawal of forces would be among options considered then.
"At the point where we arrive at that number next year, we shall have a much clearer idea of what our policy is going to be," said a British official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "But certainly at this stage there's no guarantee they're going to be there beyond the end of (2008)."
Britain is already scaling back forces and by the year's end will have 4,500 troops based mainly at an air base camp on the fringe of the southern city of Basra.
Iraqi forces will take control of security in the southern province of Basra within two months, ending Britain's combat role in the country, Brown said.
He said British forces initially would carry out oversight duties including securing key supply and transit routes from Kuwait to Baghdad. However, by next spring troops would be focused mainly on training and mentoring.
Around 500 British logistics and support staff will be moved outside Iraq, but within the Middle East region, to support the remaining troops, Brown said.
Officials said they are likely to be based in Kuwait and other neighboring countries, but Brown declined to specify where, citing security concerns.
U.S. military officials are concerned that the reduced British presence in the south could open security gaps along key supply and transit routes to Kuwait. They are also worried about security along the Iranian border should the British leave.
The roadways are a vital lifeline for U.S. forces. And everything that the Americans cannot fly out of the country when they eventually leave must make the long and potentially dangerous road journey to Kuwait through Basra province.
The American military is also concerned about the security of the southern oil fields and fear the absence of a major British force will discourage future investors deemed essential to upgrading Iraq's decrepit petroleum infrastructure.
Britain's participation in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion - and the continuing presence of troops in the country four years later - remains deeply unpopular. On Monday more than 2,000 people marched from London's Trafalgar Square to Parliament to demand a complete withdrawal of British troops.
A total of 170 British soldiers have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.
Brown apparently was apparently hoping his decision to pull troops from Iraq would distance him from his predecessor Tony Blair, whose parliamentary majority was reduced in 2005 by voters angered by the war.
He also is seeking to recapture an opinion poll lead, won soon after taking office in June, but lost last week after a series of popular tax cut pledges from the main opposition Conservatives.
Analysts said erratic polls demonstrated that, since Blair's departure in June, Britain remains unsure who it wants as leader.
Brown may also have handed his rivals a potentially crucial weapon - casting himself as a serial procrastinator by failing to hold an autumn poll.
The ex-Treasury chief is remembered for his caution over whether to challenge Blair for their party's leadership in 1994, eventually standing aside for his longtime rival.
"I did consider holding an election. Yes, I looked at it," Brown told a Downing Street news conference. But he decided he wanted to put "my vision of what the future of the country was to the people of the country," before seeking their votes.
"The fact of the matter is I take responsibility. I take the blame. I take the decisions. If anything goes wrong, it comes back to me," Brown said.
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