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Blair Announces Partial British Troop Withdrawal From Iraq

Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair has announced a withdrawal of 1,600 British troops from Iraq in the months to come, reducing total British troop strength to 5,500. Speaking in parliament, the prime minister also said British forces would remain in Iraq into 2008. VOA's Sonja Pace reports from London.

Speaking before members of the House of Commons, Mr. Blair announced the initial draw-down of British forces from around Basra in southern Iraq.

"The actual reduction in forces will be from the present 7,100 - itself down from over 9,000 two years ago and 40,000 at the time of the conflict - to roughly 5,500," he said.

Mr. Blair said most of the remaining troops would deploy to Basra airbase and serve increasingly in a support role with specific 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," he said.

Mr. Blair said the withdrawal and redeployment are possible because of the increased readiness of Iraqi forces to take over control.

The British decision to withdraw some of its forces was made as the United States increases its troop strength by more than 20,000 for stepped up security operations around Baghdad.

Mr. Blair said one could not compare the situation in predominately Shi'ite Basra, where relative calm has prevailed for some time, to Baghdad, which remains at the center of sectarian and insurgent violence with large populations of Shia and Sunni Muslims.

Mr. Blair said he hoped to be able to reduce British troop levels to below 5,000 later this year, but he also said forces would stay in Iraq into 2008 "as long as they are wanted and have a job to do."

As Mr. Blair announced a reduction in British troop levels, Denmark's prime minister announced the withdrawal from southern Iraq of the Danish contingent of 460 troops by August.