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U.K. confirms it will scale back Iraq presence

Britain, in contrast to the United States, said on Thursday it would not send more troops to Iraq and would press ahead with plans to scale back its presence in the key southern city of Basra.
A British soldier from the Staffordshire
A British soldier from the Staffordshire Regiment patrols the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Wednesday under the watchful gun of a Warrior armored fighting vehicles.Dave Clark / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: Reuters

Britain, in contrast to the United States, said Thursday it would not send more troops to Iraq and would press ahead with plans to scale back its presence in the key southern city of Basra.

“It is not our intention to send more troops at the present time,” Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett told reporters.

The Daily Telegraph, citing a timetable for withdrawal which it said it had seen, reported on Thursday that Britain will cut troop levels in Iraq by almost 3,000 by the end of May.

Asked about the report, Beckett said: “The Telegraph may speculate about timing and so on but it does depend on how things continue to go in Basra.”

The popularity of Prime Minister Tony Blair has slumped over his decision to back President Bush in Iraq and the premier is set to step down later this year after a decade in power.

Blair told parliament on Wednesday that British operations aimed at preparing for the handover of security in Basra to Iraqi authorities could be completed in the next few weeks.

In defiance of U.S. public opinion, Bush said Wednesday night that he is sending 21,500 extra troops to Iraq which he believes are needed to help “break the cycle of violence.”

Severely overstretched
Britain has some 7,100 troops in southern Iraq, mostly stationed in and around Basra. The city, Iraq’s second biggest, remains dangerous with Shiite factions battling each other for control and British troops sometimes targeted.

British generals fear their troops are already being severely overstretched as they are also involved in fierce fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“The Achilles’ heel of every single major Western nation is that they don’t have enough soldiers,” defense analyst Charles Heyman told Reuters.

“We are not about to lose control of Basra but it’s possible the coalition could actually lose control of Baghdad in the next three months,” he said. “The tragedy about the 20,000 Americans is it’s too little, too late.”

The United States knew it couldn’t ask for more British troops because “the British army is totally extended to its absolute limit,” he said.

Welcoming Bush’s announcement, Beckett said it showed the determination of the U.S. and Iraqi governments to deal with the security situation.

“We are under way with a process of handover as the security situation on the ground improves,” she said. “We will make our judgments and decisions depending on the progress of those events. That’s been the case in the past, it’s the case now.”

Last month British and Iraqi forces stormed and destroyed the headquarters of the serious crimes unit in Basra after learning prisoners were about to be executed. The unit had long been accused of involvement in murders, attacks on coalition forces and kidnappings in the southern oil city.