Thursday February 22, 3:16 AM
*Britain and Denmark to start Iraq withdrawal*
Key US ally Britain, along with Denmark, announced a major troop
withdrawal from Iraq, even as the United States sends in thousands of
extra soldiers to douse the raging insurgency.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said 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.
Denmark said its 430 ground troops would leave by August. Lithuania was
also considering withdrawing its 50 troops at the same time, its defence
Britain's move was particularly important for Washington as it is the
largest component of the US-led force in Iraq after the United States.
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
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.
"Increasingly our role will be supporting training and our numbers will
be able to reduce accordingly," he said.
In an announcement carefully coordinated with Britain, Danish Prime
Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that Danish troops would leave
southern Iraq in August and be replaced by a helicopter unit of 50 soldiers.
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.
The announcement threw the spotlight on the US strategy in Iraq, which
has come under attack from the Democrat-controlled Congress.
Senate Democratic Majority leader Harry Reid bluntly said the British
government had "acknowledged a reality" that Bush "still stubbornly
refuses to accept" as he sends more American soldiers into Iraq.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denied that the US-led coalition
"The coalition remains intact and in fact the British still have
thousands of soldiers deployed in Iraq, in the south," Rice said in Berlin.
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 honour," 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.
At the same time, Bulgaria's parliament voted to extend the presence of
the 155 Bulgarian troops in Iraq by a year until April 2008.
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.
There was more carnage in Iraq on Wednesday.
A suicide car bomber attacked an Iraqi police checkpoint in the Shiite
holy city of Najaf, killing at least 13 people -- seven police, three
women and three children -- and wounding dozens more, authorities said.
Three more US troops were killed in two separate incidents bringing to
3,142 the US military's losses in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion,
according to an AFP tally based on Pentagon figures.
News of the British withdrawal plans was welcome by Iraqi officials,
including Sami al-Askari, a Shiite lawmaker and political adviser to
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who said it fulfilled "the wish of the
Iraqi government and all the political powers in the country."
Hakim al-Mayahi, head of the Basra provincial security council which has
had a fractious relationship with the British, said he welcomed "any
withdrawal of British forces from inside the centre of the city."