LONDON, (AP) -Britain will withdraw around 1,600 troops from Iraq in the coming months and aims to further cut its 7,100-strong contingent by late summer if Iraqi forces can secure the country’s south, Prime Minister Tony Blair said Wednesday.
The announcement, which came as Denmark said it would withdraw its 460 troops and Lithuania said it was considering pulling out its small contingent, comes as the U.S. is implementing an increase of 21,000 more troops for Iraq — putting Washington on an opposite track as its main coalition allies.
Analysts say there is little point in boosting forces in largely Shiite southern Iraq, where most non-U.S. coalition troops are concentrated. Yet as more countries draw down or pull out, it could create a security vacuum if radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stirs up trouble.
Blair told the House of Commons that British troops will stay in Iraq until at least 2008 and work to secure the Iran-Iraq border and maintain supply routes to U.S. and coalition troops. He told lawmakers that “increasingly our role will be support and training, and our numbers will be able to reduce accordingly.”
“The actual reduction in forces will be from the present 7,100 — itself down from over 9,000 two years ago and 40,000 at the time of the conflict — to roughly 5,500,” Blair said.
If Iraqi forces are judged ready to assume more responsibility for security in southern Iraq, Britain could further reduce its force level to below 5,000 once a base at Basra Palace is transferred to Iraqi control in late summer, Blair said.
Blair said Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had agreed to the plan.
“What all of this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be. But it does mean that the next chapter in Basra’s history can be written by Iraqis,” Blair said.
Denmark said it would withdraw its troops from southern Iraq by August. The decision had been made with the Iraqi government and Britain, under whose command the Danish forces are serving near Basra, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.
He added that Denmark would replace the troops with surveillance helicopters and civilian advisers. He said he spoke Tuesday with Bush who expressed “both understanding and satisfaction that the situation in Iraq makes it possible for Denmark and Britain to reduce their numbers of troops.”
A Defense Ministry spokeswoman in Lithuania, Ruta Apeikyte, said the Baltic nation is also “seriously considering” withdrawing its 53 troops from Iraq in August. The Lithuanian platoon serves with a Danish battalion near Basra.
The major effect of the British and Danish withdrawals will likely be political, coming on the heels of Bush’s decision to boost U.S. troop levels. Democratic leaders could use the announcements to pressure Bush to put forth his own timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice played down the British pullback, saying it is consistent with the U.S. plan to turn over more control to Iraqi forces.
“The British have done what is really the plan for the country as a whole, which is to transfer security responsibility to the Iraqis as the situation permits,” Rice said in Germany, where she is meeting with the German foreign minister.
“The coalition remains intact and, in fact, the British still have thousands of troops deployed in Iraq.”
Blair and Bush talked by secure video link Tuesday about Britain’s proposed withdrawal, U.S. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. He also said that Bush views Britain’s troop cutbacks as “a sign of success” in Iraq.
“While the United Kingdom is maintaining a robust force in southern Iraq, we’re pleased that conditions in Basra have improved sufficiently that they are able to transition more control to the Iraqis,” Johndroe said.
The British have faced problems recently in the south. Since January 2005, Basra and Maysan provinces have both fallen under the sway of Shiite militias, which have resisted British efforts to uproot them. Relations with the Basra provincial government have also deteriorated.
Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said though the British and American strategies appear to be opposite, they will achieve the same end: a consolidation of Shiite power in Iraq.
The British have already acquiesced to a “situation of quiet sectarian cleansing” in the south, and their decision to pull out of Basra simply marks “acceptance of a political reality” of Shiite control in the region. He noted, for instance, that southeastern Iraq has been “a no-go zone” for some time.
“If the Shiites continue to stand down (in Baghdad), the U.S. is fighting the Sunni insurgents for them,” he said, further cementing Shiite control of the country.
Blair acknowledged that “the situation in Basra is very different from Baghdad — there is no Sunni insurgency, no al-Qaida base, little Sunni on Shia violence,” adding that the southern city is nothing like “the challenge of Baghdad.”
The Iraqi capital has suffered from what Blair called an “orgy of terrorism unleashed upon it in order to crush any possibility of it functioning.”
“If Baghdad cannot be secured, the future of the country is in peril. The enemies of Iraq understand that. We understand it,” Blair said.
But opposition Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell said Blair’s plan fell a long way short of a promise to leave Iraq as a “beacon of democracy” for the region.
“The unpalatable truth is this … we will leave behind a country on the brink of civil war, where reconstruction has stalled, where corruption is endemic and a region which is a lot less stable than it was in 2003,” Campbell said.
Besides the United States, Britain and Denmark, the major partners in the coalition include South Korea (2,300 troops), Poland (900), Australia and Georgia (both 800) and Romania (600), according to the Brookings Institution.
South Korea plans to halve its 2,300-member contingent in the northern city of Irbil by April, and is under pressure from parliament to devise a plan for a complete withdrawal by year’s end. Polish President Lech Kaczynski has said that his country’s troops would stay no longer than December.
Blair, who has said he will step down by September after a decade in power, has seen his foreign-policy record overshadowed by his role as Bush’s leading ally in the unpopular war. As recently as last month, Blair rejected opposition calls to withdraw British troops by October, calling such a plan irresponsible.