The British army is to start pulling troops out of Iraq next month despite the deteriorating security situation in much of the country, the Observer has learned. The main British combat force in Iraq, about 5,000 strong, will be reduced by around a third by the end of October during a routine rotation of units.
The news came amid another day of mayhem in Iraq, which saw a suicide bomber kill at least 23 people and injure 53 in the northern city of Kirkuk. The victims were queuing to join Iraq's National Guard. More than 200 people were killed last week in one of the bloodiest weeks since last year's invasion, strengthening impressions that the country is spinning out of control.
Saturday grim footage apparently showing a British engineer kidnapped from a house in Baghdad last week along with two American colleagues surfaced in a video released in the Iraqi capital. The group holding the three threatened to execute them unless Iraqi women prisoners are released from prison. And Saturday night it was reported that 10 more staff working for an American-Turkish company had been seized as hostages.
There are now fears that Iraqi elections scheduled for January will have to be delayed because of the growing instability.
Last week Geoff Hoon, the British defense secretary, said that more troops could be sent to safeguard the polls if necessary, although Whitehall sources said there was no guarantee that they would be British.
The forthcoming "draw-down" of British troops in Basra had not been made public and is likely to provoke consternation in both Washington and Baghdad. Many in Iraq argue that more, not fewer, troops are needed. Last week British troops in Basra fought fierce battles with Shiite militia groups.
The reduction will take place when the 1st Mechanized Infantry Brigade is replaced by the 4th Armored Division, now based in Germany, in a routine rotation over the next few weeks. Troop numbers are being finalized, but military sources in Iraq and in Whitehall say they are likely to be "substantially less" than the current total in Basra. The new combat brigade will have five or even four battle groups, against its current strength of six battle groups of around 800 men. A military spokesman in Basra confirmed the scaling back of the British commitment.
Currently there are 8,000 British troops in the 14,000-strong "multinational division" in southern Iraq, which has responsibility for about 4.5 million people.
The cuts will occur in the combat elements of the deployment -- the 5,000-strong infantry and armored brigade that is committed to the provinces of Basra and Maysan. Four Royal navy ships will remain in the Gulf.
However, the incoming force will leave its heavy armor, mainly Challenger tanks, behind, but will be equipped with a unit of Warrior armored troop carriers.
Senior officers say the scaling back of the British commitment in Iraq is a sign of their success in keeping order and helping reconstruction. But both Basra and Maysan have seen heavy combat recently, with some units sustaining up to 35 percent casualties, and remains restive. The al-Mahdi army, which was responsible for most of the fighting, remains heavily armed.
"Whatever they say, fewer troops mean less capability," a military expert told the Observer . "You need as many boots on the ground as you can get for low-intensity warfare and peacekeeping operations."
Iyad Allawi, the interim Iraqi prime minister, will hold talks with Tony Blair at Chequers, Blair's country estate, Sunday on security issues, including elections and the strengthening of border patrols.
News of the troop withdrawal comes at a difficult time for Blair, with the publication Saturday of leaked documents suggesting that he was warned a year before the Iraq invasion that it could prompt a meltdown.
However, Tessa Jowell, the culture secretary and a close ally of Blair, told the Observer that the prime minister still believed that Britain's actions would be justified by the restoration of democracy, "however difficult and remote a prospect that seems at the moment, when our headlines are crowded with further attacks by the insurgents."
In another embarrassment for Blair, a draft report from the Iraqi Survey Group, set up to investigate Saddam Hussein's weapons program, has concluded that the former dictator's only chemical or biological armament was a small amount of poison for use in political killings.