Thu, Feb 22, 2007 - Page 1 News List

Blair announces start of troop pullout from Iraq

POSITIVE SPIN The White House said President Bush sees the British move as a sign of success, while the Australian prime minister said he would not follow Blair's lead

AGENCIES , LONDON, COPENHAGEN AND BAGHDAD

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday that Britain would reduce its troop levels in Iraq by 1,600 over the coming months, but its soldiers would stay in the country into next year as long as they were wanted.

"The actual reduction in forces will be from the present 7,100 -- itself down from over 9,000 two years ago and 40,000 at the time of the conflict -- to roughly 5,500," Blair told the House of Commons.

"The UK military presence will continue into 2008, for as long as we are wanted and have a job to do," he said.

Under domestic pressure to show progress in the war in Iraq and under attack in Congress for escalating US troop levels amid rising violence, the White House put a positive spin on the British withdrawal after Blair telephoned US President George W. Bush to inform him of the move.

"President Bush sees this as a sign of success and what is possible for us once we help the Iraqis deal with the sectarian violence in Baghdad," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

"The president is grateful for the support of the British forces in the past and into the future ... We're pleased that conditions in Basra have improved sufficiently that they are able to transition more control to the Iraqis," Johndroe said.

Britain's troops are based around the southern city of Basra and have already handed over control to Iraqi forces in some parts of the Shiite Muslim-dominated south, where unrest has been nowhere near the levels witnessed in Baghdad and the central "Sunni triangle."

Blair has been under relentless pressure to spell out a timetable for troop withdrawal. He has repeatedly insisted that troops could only be withdrawn if the conditions on the ground allow and domestic political considerations would have no sway.

Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said the British action would not prompt him to reduce Australia's troops in Iraq.

"I don't think it follows from that that there should be a reduction in our 550. I mean you have got to maintain a critical mass and to do the job according to our defense advice, you need that," he told reporters in Perth.

In Copenhagen, Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said yesterday that Denmark would withdraw all of its ground troops from Iraq by August and replace them with a small helicopter unit.

Denmark has about 470 soldiers in Iraq, serving under British command. They will be replaced by a unit of nine soldiers manning four observational helicopters, Rasmussen said.

Five Danish soldiers have been killed in Iraq in combat.

In developments in Iraq, a suicide car bomber attacked a police checkpoint in Najaf yesterday, killing at least 13 people and wounding dozens more, police said.

The attack targeted a police checkpoint in Maydan Square near Najaf's old city, which holds the mausoleum of Imam Ali, the holiest site in Shiite Islam.

Captain Hadi al-Najafi, an explosives expert, said police had been searching the bomber's car when it exploded. He said four policemen and two women were among the dead.

In western Baghdad, a tanker truck carrying chlorine exploded, killing one person, wounding seven and intoxicating 35 others, security sources said.

The attack was the second in two days involving a chlorine tanker and appeared to confirm a new tactic by insurgents.

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