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Blair Announces Iraq Withdrawal Plan
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British Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday announced a plan to withdraw 1,600 British troops from Iraq in the next few months.


In a speech to the House of Commons, Blair said that the current 7,100 troops would be cut to 5,500 shortly, with the hope that 500 could leave by the end of summer.


The deployment of British troops in Iraq had been a success and had removed Saddam Hussein from power, Blair said.


He said that the situation in Basra now is very different from the one in Baghdad, and Iraqi authorities were now able to take over responsibility for security.


"It does mean that the next chapter in Basra's history can be written by the Iraqis," he added.


Although he acknowledged that Basra was still "difficult and sometimes dangerous," levels of murder and kidnapping had dropped and reconstruction was under way.


It was important to show the Iraqis that Britain -- and the other major coalition partners -- did not intend to keep their forces stay longer than necessary, the prime minister said.


Some British soldiers would remain in Iraq into 2008 "as long as we are wanted and have a job to do," helping secure supply routes and borders and to support Iraqis, he added.


Meanwhile, senior Whitehall sources told the BBC that the pullout was "slightly slower" than they had expected and "if conditions worsen, this process could still slow up."


Blair's announcement comes just weeks before the fourth anniversary of the outbreak of the 2003 Iraq war on March 19 and at the same time as 21,000 more US troops are being sent to Iraq.


The White House confirmed that US President George W. Bush and Blair had discussed the plans on Tuesday. A White House spokesman described Britain's cutbacks "a sign of success" in Iraq.


But Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh said last week that Iraqi forces might not be entirely ready to take over the control of the city.


British Conservative party leader David Cameron said that he backed the withdrawal, but questions remained to be answered. Britain needed to know whether the Iraqi forces were ready to takeover the security of Basra and whether reduced numbers of British troops would be able to defend themselves against siege, he said.


A total of 132 British soldiers have died since the start of Iraq war on March 19, 2003.


(Xinhua News Agency February 22, 2007)


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