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Britain To Withdraw 1,600 Troops From Iraq

February 21, 2007 -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair said today that Britain will cut its forces in southern Iraq by nearly one-quarter within the next months.

Blair's announcement came as Denmark said it would soon withdraw all of its forces from Iraq.

Blair, speaking to parliament in London today, acknowledged that the situation in Al-Basrah, where British forces are based, is not as rosy as he had hoped.

But he said the security environment is good enough to allow 1,600 British troops to return home in the next few months, and another 500 by the end of the year.

The remaining 5,000 British soldiers will vacate three bases they now control in the city, as well as a logistics base at nearby Shuaiba, and regroup at the Al-Basrah airport.

"What all of this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be, but it does mean that the next chapter in Basra's history can be written by the Iraqis," Blair said.

Blair contrasted what he called the "orgy of violence" in Baghdad and some other parts of Iraq with the relative calm in Al-Basrah. The southern Iraqi city has a negligible Sunni presence, contributing to the low level of sectarian violence.

Blair said the greatest number of attacks in the area have been against foreign forces. More than 130 British troops have been killed in Iraq since the invasion.

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney welcomed Blair's announcement, saying the troop reduction is a sign that "things are going pretty well" in Iraq. And U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Berlin that "the coalition remains intact."

Under Pressure

Blair's government has been under intense pressure to bring British soldiers home. But he said the partial withdrawal and regrouping of British soldiers would not take away their ability to carry out important security operations.

"The British forces that remain in Iraq will have the following tasks: training and support to Iraqi forces, securing the Iraq-Iran border, securing supply routes and, above all, the ability to conduct operations against extremist groups and be there in support of the Iraqi Army when called upon," Blair said.

Blair's announcement came as Denmark announced it will withdraw its 460-strong contingent from southern Iraq by August.

Both moves were welcomed by Iraqi officials, who said they were ready to take greater responsibility for security in the region.

By contrast, the United States is sending 21,500 additional troops to Iraq to help quell violence in Baghdad and in western Al-Anbar Governorate.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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