August 22, 2006

UK may cut Iraq force in half by mid-2007: commander

By Peter Graff

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain may cut its force in Iraq in
half by the middle of next year after handing over security
responsibility for the south to Iraqis within nine months, a
senior British commander said on Tuesday.

Speaking to reporters on condition he not be identified,
the commander said Britain would leave "quite a significantly
smaller force than we've got now, but probably in the region of
3,000 to 4,000 people based in a single location."

Britain handed over responsibility for one of the southern
provinces it controls to Iraqi forces in July, and the
commander said it hopes to hand over a second province next

Most of Britain's 7,000 troops in Iraq are based around the
second city of Basra, where the commander said a transition to
Iraqi control could take place in the first quarter of 2007.

"These are all conditions-based, subject to a variety of
factors, but in terms of the tactical plan and the competence
of the Iraqi army, it is perfectly feasible," he said.

He said the first thousand British troops could start
returning home in the next 4 to 6 months, in part representing
forces being drawn down from Maysan province, where Britain has
already begun moving out of its main base.

The 3,000 to 4,000-strong British force would remain in the
Basra area after the handover "to protect our investment" in
security in the mainly-Shi'ite south and show support for U.S.
troops still facing security problems in other parts of Iraq.

"We anticipate there is not going to be a political
appetite to saying 'alright, we're done' while there is still
unfinished business in the center of the country," the
commander said.

Britain has maintained a force of between 7,000 and 8,000
troops in southern Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

The mainly-Shi'ite south has been far more peaceful than
Sunni-dominated and ethnically mixed provinces in the center of
the country.

But Basra has seen a surge in violence over the past year,
which British officials blame on rival Shi'ite factions
battling for control of the city, which is at the heart of one
of Iraq's main oil-producing regions.

The British commander said the main security concerns are
local militia, such as offshoots of the Jaish al-Mehdi -- the
Mehdi Army -- of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

"The mainstream Jaish al-Mehdi are not a particular worry,
but there are rogue elements, some of them rather alarmingly
close to government structures."