Brown seeks Iraq troop cuts but no pullout timetable


Baghdad : British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who arrived in Iraq Saturday on a surprise visit, said he intended to reduce British troops in Iraq but refused to set an “artificial timetable” for their withdrawal.

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After talks with Iraqi leaders, Brown told reporters that enormous progress on the security front has been made since his last visit to Iraq in December.

“It is important to recognize that security, prosperity, local democracy – these are the things that we are trying to move forward and trying to achieve,” Brown said.

The premier said he wanted to cut troop numbers in Iraq but would not set what he called an artificial timetable for withdrawal.

Since October the British government has scaled down troops from 5,000 to 4,000 but further troop cuts to 2,500 had been halted after the launch of an Iraqi government’s crackdown against Shia militias in Basra end of March.

Major British troop cuts in Iraq will have to be decided next year, British army chief, Jock Stirrup, said Friday.

London has made the full withdrawal of troops from Iraq conditional on the four goals: successful training of Iraqi security forces, political security, progress in economic rebuilding and a return to normal civil aviation to Basra airport.

British troops are now confined to a base at Basra airport after they handed security responsibilities in the southern province to local authorities in December.

Brown is expected to tell British parliament next Tuesday of his government’s plan for its future role in Iraq.

Economic cooperation and promoting British investment in Iraq were also discussed at talks between Brown and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, both of whom are expected to hold more talks in autumn.

The Iraqi government, boasting the lowest level of violence in four years, has been reaping the benefits of security achievements and a successful diplomatic offensive aiming at reintegrating Iraq into the international community and the region.

A number of high-profile senior foreign officials visited Baghdad in the past weeks, including Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Brown is the latest of these.

US Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Barak Obama, currently on a foreign tour, is also expected to stop in Baghdad in the next few days.

A number of Arab countries are opening embassies in Baghdad, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait, further signaling international confidence in the Iraqi government and its ability to maintain law and order in the country.

The Iraqi government is hoping to attract foreign investors and firms that have stayed away from the war-ravaged country despite its immense oil wealth and lucrative reconstruction projects.

This year, foreign firms have committed to deals estimated at about $500 million and about $1 billion worth of foreign investment are expected by the end of the year, according to the Pentagon estimates.

Many of the firms now operating in Iraq are from countries that did not send troops to take part in the 2003 US-led invasion, such as Turkey, China and France.

Brown will seek to promote British investment in the oil-rich southern province of Basra.

During a visit to Iraq last December, Brown and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih launched the Basra Development Commission to promote investment in the province.

“Britain’s long-term strategic goal is to establish ties with Iraq on a permanent basis in the areas of trade and investment and boost cultural and academic cooperation,” British government spokesman in the region, Jon Wilks, told the Iraqi-state owned daily al-Sabah.