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Opposition Party Calls British Leader's Iraq Visit Political

Britain's opposition Conservative Party has called British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's surprise visit to Iraq a photo opportunity publicity stunt. For VOA, Tom Rivers reports from London.

In the climate of intense speculation about how soon a British general election might be called, Gordon Brown flew off on his first visit to Iraq as prime minister. In Baghdad, he spoke of his hope that the final region under British control, Basra province, can be handed over to Iraqi control within two months.

"By the end of the year, the British forces, which have been 5,500, can be reduced to 4,500 by the end of the year, indeed by Christmas, 1,000 of our troops can be brought back to the United Kingdom and to other purposes," he said.

The actual number of soldiers coming out is a not a surprise, but the timing of the announcement, in the middle of the opposition Conservative party's annual conference, was unexpected.

Michael Heseltine, a longtime Conservative and defense secretary under former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, says the prime minister's announcement has nothing to do with military or strategic judgments, but everything to do with politics.

"It is very good news for the troops and their families but of course, it is pure politics," he said. "I mean Gordon Brown knows that this is a deeply unpopular war. This is the Labor party's war, and it is very divisive here at home. He is very worried about the election."

Labor is riding high in the polls, and that is why many political observers here believe Mr. Brown may call for an election in the next couple of months.

Opposition Conservative politician Liam Fox, the party's spokesman on defense matters, also says Mr. Brown's announcement was political.

"We have known that for some time that there was going to be a drawdown of troops," he said. "The prime minister initially told us we would have that announced in the House of Commons, but it now seems that a piece of photo opportunity and blatant electioneering has gotten in the way and given he last week spent less than one minute of 67 minutes talking about our armed forces [in] Iraq or Afghanistan combined, it does seem a bit rich for him to wallow in the photo opp[ortunitie]s today."

The issue of Iraq is expected to play a pivotal role in the next election, whenever it comes.