US agrees further British withdrawal from Iraq

Britain is poised to announce significant cuts in the number of troops in southern Iraq following an upbeat assessment by United States and British military officials in London on Tuesday.

This was the message from defence officials on Tuesday night following talks between ministers and General David Petraeus, the US military commander in Iraq.

Amid concern about the mounting tensions between Washington and Tehran over Iraq and nuclear issues, Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Baghdad, also kept up the pressure on Iran, saying its repeated calls for dialogue with the US were irrelevant as long as it continued supporting Iraqi militias and played what Crocker called a “lethal and damaging” role.

The Guardian understands an announcement on further cuts in British troops could be made as early as October 8 when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is due to make a statement to MPs when the Commons returns after its summer break. A reduction of 500 troops out of a total of 5 500 has already been announced.

At a press conference after talks with Des Browne, the British Defence Secretary, and British military chiefs, Petraeus went out of the way to emphasise the intimate links between the senior commanders of the two countries in Iraq.

He declined to talk figures but said the talks included the “rotation” of British troops in southern Iraq. A change of brigades would take place between the end of October and beginning of December and would provide the opportunity for a new round of cuts in the number of UK troops based in Basra.

He said that, subject to continuing negotiations, he expected Basra province, the last of the four Iraqi provinces controlled by Britain after the 2003 invasion, to be transferred to the Iraqis “later this fall or in the winter”.

He added: “There has been a substantial reduction over the past month and a half in the number of violent attacks [there].
Political deals appear to have been established.”

Petraeus also emphasised “reconciliation”. Referring to the British experience in Northern Ireland, he spoke of coming “to grips with the obvious idea you reconcile with your enemies”.

He said he had discussed “specific tasks” with Browne and British defence chiefs. Officials said this was a reference to the importance of political and economic progress—an issue likely to have been raised in his talks later in Downing Street.

The British Ministry of Defence said on Tuesday night Browne “re-emphasised the UK’s commitment to Iraq, that we will continue to help build their capabilities—military and civilian—so that they can take full responsibility for the security of their own country”.

At the joint press conference, Crocker said: “We have not witnessed any constructive changes in Iranian behaviour on the ground in Iraq.

“For us the issue is not about the US talking to Iran or the bilateral relationship, which is extraordinarily difficult. It’s about what Iran can and should be doing—and should not be doing—by supporting and training and financing extremist militias that are killing Iraqis and coalition forces.”

Iran’s interest was in a stable, democratic and peaceful Iraq, he said. “The Iranians have a decision to make whether their long-term interest overrides their short-term tactical desire to cause problems for us—because they really can’t have both.” Petraeus said he had not sought authorisation to cross the border into Iran.

Two weeks ago US President George Bush said he had authorised US military commanders in Iraq “to confront Tehran’s murderous activities”.

Petraeus spoke of an unnamed prisoner who had laughed out loud when asked if his group’s activities would be possible without Iranian support. The tape of his interrogation had been shown to Iraqi politicians to prove the extent of Iran’s involvement.

Overall, the message was the same as the two men relayed in their testimony to the US Congress last week.

“Iraq’s problems will require a long-term effort,” Petraeus said.

“These can succeed but they will take time. There are no easy answers or quick solutions to helping the Iraqis build sustainable security and achieve national reconciliation.

“Our assessments underscore the importance of recognising that a premature drawdown of our forces would likely have devastating consequences ... for our two nations and the world.”

Crocker spoke of “new momentum” in Iraq following the surge, which had led to a fall in the number of attacks on civilians in 10 out of 13 provinces. “Should we decide that we are tired and want a dramatic political change then I’m certain there will be failure,” he said.

Crocker defined Iraq’s central problem as the absence of “broad agreement on the nature of the state”.

The US, he said, was prepared to talk to those “who are ready to accept the reality of a new Iraqi state and society”. But there had been no contact with “unreconstructed elements” of the Ba’ath party. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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