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Britain Delays Iraq Troop Withdrawal

Britain's defense secretary has announced plans to reduce troop levels in southern Iraq have been postponed after a recent flare-up of violence around the city of Basra. Mandy Clark reports for VOA from London.

Defense Secretary Des Browne told members of parliament that the expected spring homecoming for thousands of British troops based in Basra has been delayed.

"In October we announced our plan from drawing down UK troops from southern Iraq," he said. "In the light of last week's events, however, it is prudent that we pause any further reductions while the current situation has unfolding. It is absolutely right that military commanders review plans when conditions on the ground change."

Last October, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced plans to cut the British force from 4,100 to 2,500 this spring, with an indication that further cuts could follow.

The decision to delay the withdrawal was prompted by recent fighting between the Iraqi army and Shia militants loyal to the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. More than 1,000 people were killed in the fighting and relative calm returned only when the two sides agreed to a cease-fire on Monday.

At the height of the fighting, British and American troops were called in to support Iraqi government forces.

Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, said in Baghdad the operation was a success and that 10,000 additional police and army troops would be recruited to keep order in the southern city.

In London, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, says Britain still plays a vital role in supporting the Iraqi troops.

"We want the Iraqi people and particularly the Iraqi forces to take responsibility in policing and to make that possible we can train 30,000 of the Iraqis' own armed forces in the south of the country," he said.

Britain's opposition Conservative party leader, David Cameron, said Mr. Brown should not have overstated the drawback when he announced it in October.

"What governments must not do is over-promise and then under-deliver," he said. "I think that Gordon Brown said more than perhaps he should have done in the autumn."

The defense secretary did not give a timetable for the delay in pulling out British troops, but officials say if the Iraqi armed forces are strengthened and security improves in Basra, British troops will be able to return home.