British could quit Iraq sooner than expected

Thomas Harding
London Telegraph
Wednesday June 13, 2007

Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, hinted yesterday that there could be an accelerated withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

He said the Armed Forces were in danger of being significantly "damaged" if they continued to fight in the same numbers abroad.

After returning from a trip accompanying Gordon Brown to Iraq, Mr Browne appeared to pave the way for further substantial reductions of troops in Basra.

It has been suggested that a significant withdrawal from southern Iraq in the next year would be politically advantageous in a forthcoming election campaign.

Mr Browne said the military would be "degraded" if the current tempo of operations continued with 14,000 troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He also admitted that with so many troops deployed on operations, training vital to the military's long term effectiveness had taken a back seat.

During a lunch with journalists yesterday, Mr Browne hinted that during a Gordon Brown premiership there could be substantial reduction of overseas commitments.

Asked how long Britain could maintain high force levels abroad he said: "It is not our intention to sustain that level of two medium size operations indefinitely."

By next month Mr Browne predicted a further 500 soldiers would be withdrawn from Iraq as troops began to pull out of Basra Palace, the last remaining barracks inside the city.

But there would still be 5,000 left in the country, mainly to support Iraqi security forces in the event of unrest as the local political parties fight for ascendancy in the oil-rich south.

An assessment would have to be on future troop numbers in Iraq although this was likely to be dependent on what the Americans would require.

He added that Iran was "using proxies" in an attempt to drive the British out of southern Iraq.

With troop numbers in Afghanistan doubling to 7,000 in the past year, Mr Browne admitted that if "we were seeking to sustain this operational tempo indefinitely then we are in danger of degrading our forces".

He added that he "did not think" that the current force levels in the Middle East would remain in the next five years.

By next summer he indicated that Afghan security forces would be "able to take over a significant part of their security".

But this appears unlikely as the Afghan National Army is substantially undermanned and poorly equipped and unable to take up security posts where British troops have pushed out the Taliban.

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