LONDON ~ The British government is preparing to withdraw all troops from Iraq by next June, newspaper reports here said on Wednesday.
Citing a senior defense source, The Guardian said Britain would start the pullout in March, and the last troops would leave Basra in southern Iraq by June. Other newspapers also reported defense sources as giving a June date.
The majority of Britain’s 4,000 troops in Iraq are currently confined to Basra air base, and the Guardian says that instead of handing over to the Iraqi authorities, they will be replaced by several thousand US troops.
About 300-400 troops are likely to remain to help train the Iraqi forces, while equipment such as helicopters will be transferred to Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown has ruled out a timetable for a withdrawal but has indicated he wanted to reduce the number of troops in Iraq.
Ministers have spoken of a “fundamental change of mission” in 2009 and this was reiterated by a Ministry of Defence spokeswoman Wednesday.
“Significant progress has been made in Basra, a city which has now been transformed thanks to Iraqi, coalition and British efforts. As such, we are now expecting to see a fundamental change of mission in early 2009,” she said.
Iraq’s national security adviser, Muwafaq al-Rubaie, said last month that negotiations between London and Baghdad on Britain’s pullout had begun a fortnight earlier, and said British troops would leave by the end of 2009.
“By the end of next year there will be no British troops in Iraq,” he said.
However, any decision will likely depend on the situation on the ground, and in particular the peaceful passage of provincial elections at the end of January – the first vote in the country since 2005.
Since the US-led invasion in March 2003, 177 British troops have died in Iraq.