British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Saturday that plans are being made to scale back troops in Iraq, but refused to consider an "artificial timetable" for withdrawing Britain's remaining 4,000 soldiers.
Brown's comments — following meetings with Iraqi leaders — come in advance of next week's scheduled address to British lawmakers on Iraq, when he is expected to give more details on troop reduction plans as insurgent attacks and militia violence drops sharply around Iraq.
No specific troop withdrawal figures have been made public, but a senior British military officer has predicted substantial troop cuts in Iraq next year.
"It is certainly our intention that we reduce troop numbers, but I am not going to give an artificial timetable at the moment," Brown said following talks with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani.
A departure of more British forces will have little bearing on the battlefield. The troops, mostly based outside the southern city of Basra, no longer have a combat role and are involved mostly with training Iraqi security units.
Britain's moves come about four months after Iraqi opened a major offensive in Basra to root out Shiite militias with suspected links to Iran.
The campaign — which began with disarray among Iraqi forces — ultimately gained ground with U.S. help and reclaimed wide control over Iraq's second-largest city and key oil center.
Brown said "enormous progress" had been made to lower violence and begin economic reconstruction around Iraq.
"There has been a very big turnaround," he said.
Original cuts postponed
Britain had planned to cut its troop level to about 2,500 earlier this year, but postponed the move after a spike in fighting around Basra before the Iraqi-led clampdown.
The expected drawdown from Iraq also is motivated by a rise in British troop strength in Afghanistan and concerns about strains in maintaining both forces.
Brown's stop in Baghdad coincides with preparations for a planned fact-finding visit to Iraq by U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama, who also has supported sharpening the military focus on the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan and border regions of Pakistan.
"It is true there are additional pressures in Afghanistan," said Brown.
Although Britain maintains the second-largest foreign military force in Iraq, it is dwarfed by the approximately 150,000 U.S. soldiers currently in the country. Brown's meeting in Baghdad also included Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.
"We are discussing not just what happens over the next weeks and months, but what happens over the long term as well," said Brown. "That is very much part of the American discussions and the British discussions."
On Friday, the White House said that President Bush and Iraq's prime minister have agreed to set a "general time horizon" for bringing out more U.S. troops — marking a dramatic shift from the administration's past refusals to discuss any kind of deadline or timetable.