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Withdrawing Troops from Iraq

DW staff / AFP (sp)February 21, 2007

Britain, along with Denmark, confirmed it would begin a major troop withdrawal from Iraq in coming months and Lithuania too has indicated it may follow suit. Washington however denies its coalition is crumbling.

Britain has over 7,000 soldiers in IraqImage: AP

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Wednesday the British force in southern Iraq would drop from 7,100 to 5,500 in coming months and could fall below 5,000 this year.

Blair, who has seen his popularity erode at home over his decision to go to war, said that soldiers however would remain into 2008 to provide support and training if Iraq wanted.

Following Britain's lead, Denmark and Lithuania said they would withdraw most of their troops by August.

Denmark said its 430 ground troops would leave by August this year. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the decision to withdraw troops was "taken together with our coalition allies, namely Britain."

Lithuanian Defence Minister Juozas Olekas told the Baltic News Service (BNS) agency it was a "realistic possibility" that Lithuania would not replace its 50 troops when their mission in Iraq ends in August.

The Lithuanians are serving with a Danish battalion near the southern city of Basra, within the British-led multinational division. Like fellow Baltic states Latvia and Estonia, Lithuania joined NATO in 2004, and has been a staunch supporter of the United States in Iraq.

A string of other countries which sent troops either from the
outset or later have already withdrawn from Iraq, and others are
planning to do so in the coming months.

South Korea and Poland, with the largest contingents after the
US and Britain, have said they will leave by the end of the year.

"Next chapter can be written by Iraqis"

Britain's move was particularly important for Washington as it is the second largest part of the US-led force in Iraq after the United States.

Tony Blair November 2006
Blair said the peacekeeping reins had to be gradually handed over to the IraqisImage: AP

Blair has faced huge domestic pressure over the unpopular war but he would not give a timetable for a complete British withdrawal.

"The UK military presence will continue into 2008 for as long as we are wanted and have a job to do," the prime minister told the

British parliament on Wednesday.

British, Danish and other multinational troops have been concentrated around the southern city of Basra, which Blair said remains "dangerous" but had improved enough for security to be handed over to Iraqi forces.

"What all 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 Iraqis," Blair said. "Increasingly our role will be supporting training and our numbers will be able to reduce accordingly," he said.

Blair said British forces that remain would train Iraqi troops, secure the Iraq-Iran border and supply routes and boost the ability of Iraqi forces to conduct operations against extremist groups.

Blair's unwavering support for President George W. Bush over the US-led invasion in March 2003 has undermined his support at home. Britain put 40,000 troops into the invasion.

Terror im Irak
Six Danish soldiers have been killed since 2003 in the violence in IraqImage: AP

In Denmark, the government has been under increasing pressure to withdraw from Iraq, and in January Rasmussen voiced hopes that troop numbers could be reduced during 2007. Six Danish soldiers have been killed in Iraq since 2003.

A poll published in early February showed that 64 percent of Danes were "opposed" or "vehemently opposed" to the troop presence.

Meanwhile, Bulgaria's parliament voted on Wednesday to extend the presence of the 155 Bulgarian troops in Iraq by a year.

US denies coalition is crumbling

Britain's announcement threw the spotlight on the US strategy in Iraq, which has heightened Bush's unpopularity with the US public.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denied that the US-led coalition was crumbling.

"The coalition remains intact and in fact the British still have thousands of soldiers deployed in Iraq, in the south," Rice said in Berlin. She said the British pullout was part of the coalition strategy.

Condoleezza Rice in Berlin
Rice said in Berlin Wednesday that the US-led coalition was not crumblingImage: AP

"It is the plan that as it is possible to transfer responsibilities to the Iraqis, coalition forces would no longer be needed in those circumstances."

Blair telephoned the US president on Tuesday to warn him of the announcement, the White House said.

"President Bush sees this as a sign of success and what is possible for us once we help the Iraqis deal with the sectarian violence in Baghdad," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

Vice President Dick Cheney said the British drawdown was justified given the situation in Basra, but stressed there could be no retreat from Iraq.

"I want you to know that the American people will not support a policy of retreat," Cheney said on the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier while on a trip to Japan. "We want to complete the mission, we want to get it done right, and we want to return with honor," he said.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard, another strong backer of the US-led invasion, said he would not reduce Australia's 550 combat troops in Iraq, part of a 1,400-strong force in the country.

The United States has about 138,000 troops in Iraq and has started sending another 21,500 to Baghdad and surrounding provinces where the insurgency and sectarian violence has worsened in recent months.