March 13, 2006

Britain says it will reduce its Iraq force by 800

By Peter Graff

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain said on Monday it would trim its
force in Iraq by 10 percent and that the process of handing
over security responsibility for swathes of territory to Iraqi
forces could begin within weeks.

Defense Secretary John Reid said plans to cut Britain's
troop numbers by 800 in the next few months did not amount to
pulling out from whole areas of Iraqi territory. But he said a
bigger decision could come soon.

"This is not a result of the big handover or the start of
that process," Reid told reporters shortly before announcing
the troop cuts in parliament.

But he said a panel of Iraqis and members of the U.S.-led
coalition would meet in a few weeks to "assess progress and
look at whether conditions have been met for some provinces" to
be turned over to Iraqi forces.

"That stays under review, and at some stage -- I predicted
last year that at some stage in the course of this year -- if
conditions are right we may hand over full operational control
of whole areas to the Iraqi forces," said Reid.

Britain, like the United States, has long said it hopes to
withdraw troops from Iraq as local security forces improve
their capabilities.


British forces operate in the south, where the population
is mainly Shi'ite and have therefore not had to fight a Sunni
insurgency like that in U.S.-patrolled areas in the north.

The south includes areas widely seen as likely to be among
the first where international troops withdraw.

But British military commanders have also complained about
a worsening security situation since the middle of last year
because of Shi'ite sectarian militiamen employing deadlier
roadside bombs and infiltrating local police forces.

In leaked documents from mid-2005, Reid discussed the
possibility that most British troops could be home by the
middle of 2006, but no formal announcement of large cuts has
been made and that tentative timetable appears to have slipped.

The scale of Britain's military commitment in Iraq has been
the focus of new attention in the past month after Reid
announced an ambitious new three-year mission in southern
Afghanistan, set to peak at 5,700 troops in mid 2006.

Some military experts worry that operating two large-scale
missions at once could put too much strain on British forces.
Reid has repeatedly denied that commitments in Afghanistan
affect Britain's deployment in Iraq or vice versa.

A British defense ministry source said decisions on handing
over provinces to Iraqi control could not be taken until a new
government in Baghdad was formed and its representatives joined
coalition commanders in the committee assessing Iraqi progress.

But he said "we are reasonably confident" that the handover
of some provinces could begin quickly once the body met.

Reid said Britain was now able to reduce its force because
British troops had succeeded in training Iraqis to do some of
their tasks: for example, newly trained Iraqi instructors could
in turn train new recruits.

"This isn't the handover. That will come if conditions
permit. But what it does illustrate is that on the way to that
handover we are making progress."