Britain plans to substantially reduce the number of its troops in Iraq by the end of the next year. The announcement was made Monday in London by Defense Secretary Des Browne. For VOA News, Tom Rivers reports.

Preferring to use the term troop draw-down rather than withdrawal, Defense Secretary Des Browne says he expects that substantial numbers of British forces will be taken out of southern Iraq by the end of 2007.

Speaking in London, he says he expects to hand over security control to Iraqis in the country's second largest city, Basra, within the next six months.

"I do not believe it is right to give precise numbers nor to assume what the next 12 months will hold, but I can tell you that by the end of next year I expect numbers of British forces in Iraq to be significantly lower by a matter of thousands," he said.

As the British defense chief sees it, the process will unfold as more Iraqi forces are trained, which in turn will mean more security roles can be handed over. But even when this is done, Mr. Browne says some British forces will remain in the region, standing by to assist and to continue training.

"This is not about political gestures or about a trial of wills," he said. "This is about recognizing the challenges we face but also the commitment we have made. We will stay as long as we are making a positive difference and as long as the Iraqi government need our support. We will hand over when it is right to do so, driven not by arbitrary deadlines or by [the] reality on the ground. I repeat that I am determined not to allow a single one of the 7,000 British soldiers, sailors and air personnel currently in Iraq to stay there any longer than is necessary."

Browne says ultimately, economics and politics are two important developmental strands that must continue to grow, but without security, he says, little progress can be made.

He also warned that insurgent attacks could actually rise in the coming months but that was factored into Britain's draw-down plans.

In addition, the defense secretary called on Iraq's neighbors to play their part in reconstruction. He singled out Iran to do more to use its influence and become what he called "a constructive partner."

Britain maintains the second largest military contingent in Iraq after the United States. It also has the second largest troop deployment in Afghanistan.

National Audit Office figures here show that, overall, British armed force levels stand nearly three percent below projected targets.

The Defense Ministry denies British forces are being overstretched, but it does acknowledge that the current level has put additional strain on staff.