BAGHDAD (AFP) – Visiting Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has said it was hoped Britain’s 8,000 troops would start to withdraw from Iraq in a matter of months.
“In practice, what we hope to see is a gradual phased draw-down of British troops starting, not with Basra, but with one or two of the other provinces in our area,” Straw told AFP.
The phased withdrawal will start “as and when the Iraqis are satisfied that their own forces can cope completely with the responsibility,” he added following talks with Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari and President Jalal Talabani.
“It’s going to be a matter of months,” he added Saturday.
British forces control four of Iraq’s southern provinces — Basra, Nasiriyah, Samawah and Amara.
“We’re here to liberate Iraq. We did not come to colonize it,” Straw also said, noting that “we are here as long as the Iraqi government wants us here.”
Speaking of the formation of a new government in Iraq following the December 15 general elections, Straw also insisted that it be as inclusive as possible.
“It’s of fundamental importance that they get the formation of this government right, and that not only means that they declare, as the leaders are now, that there has to be a government of national unity, but they get the details right.
“They have got to work out how a broad consensus-based government will work, how decisions are taken. Because if all that happens is that the cabinet reflects the divisions that are there in the wider community, then it won’t operate effectively,” he said.
Iraq is still awaiting the final results of the election for the first permanent parliament since Saddam Hussein was ousted by US-led forces in April 2003.
Early results suggest that the Shiite-based religious parties and the Kurdish alliance will win a majority of the votes, but Sunni Arab and other secular parties have disputed early results, alleging electoral fraud.
London and Washington are looking to the formation of a stable government of “national unity” in a bid to undermine Sunni-backed insurgents.
Straw said he would be meeting here Saturday with “representatives of a wide cross-section of Iraqi society, including leaders who have criticized the results of the elections”, a reference to Sunni Arab parties.
Jaafari told a news conference that the next government would be enlarged to include “all the major parties” in parliament.
Talabani, for his part, said all sides agreed on the need “to have a government of national unity” but he acknowledged that “the devil is in the details.”