Blair: No Decision Made on Troops in Iraq
Associated Press | July 11, 2005
By ED JOHNSON
LONDON (AP) - Britain has not decided to withdraw troops from Iraq, although contingency planning is under way, Prime Minister Tony Blair's office said Monday.
A leaked government memorandum shows Britain is considering scaling back its troop presence from 8,500 to 3,000 by the middle of 2006, saving nearly $1 billion annually.
The memo, marked ``Secret - U.K. Eyes Only,'' and signed by Britain's Defense Secretary John Reid, also says there is a ``strong U.S. military desire for significant force reductions.''
``Emerging U.S. plans assume that 14 out of 18 provinces could be handed over to Iraqi control by early 2006,'' which would see the multinational force cut from 176,000 to 66,000.
British officials confirmed the authenticity of the document, first published by The Mail on Sunday newspaper.
Blair's official spokesman, who speaks on customary condition of anonymity because he is a civil servant, said the memo merely confirms the government's long-standing plan to train Iraqi forces and gradually hand over security responsibility.
``It should come as no surprise that we are going through the thinking process of how we achieve that,'' he said. ``But as John Reid said, the process of transfer will only come at the point where the Iraqi government and ourselves believe that the Iraqi forces are capable of taking that load. Has there been a political judgment to withdraw? ... No.''
Blair has faced repeated calls from political opponents to set a timetable for withdrawing British troops from Iraq. London and Washington are reluctant to do so, fearing such a move would give heart to militants waging a bloody insurgency in Iraq.
The memo, titled ``Options for future U.K. force posture in Iraq,'' sheds new light on British military planning. It sets out a timeframe for handing responsibility to Iraqi forces in specific towns in southern Iraq.
``We have a clear U.K. military aspiration to hand over to Iraqi control in al-Muthanna and Maysan provinces in October 2005 and in the other two multinational division south east provinces, Dhi Qar and Basra in April 2006,'' the document adds.
``This in turn should lead to a reduction on the total level of U.K. commitment in Iraq to around 3,000 personnel, i.e., small scale, by mid-2006.''
The document suggested that U.S. military chiefs in Washington and U.S. commanders on the ground in Iraq disagreed over the scale of troops reductions.
``There is a debate between the Pentagon/CENTCOM who favor a relatively bold reduction, and MNF-I (U.S. commanders in Iraq) whose approach is more cautious,'' the memo reads.
The documents noted that further military analysis and discussion with allies about possible troop withdrawals was necessary.
``The Japanese reconstruction battalion will, for example, be reluctant to stay in al-Muthanna if force protection is solely provided by the Iraqis. The Australian position, which is highly influenced by the Japanese presence, may also be uncertain,'' the memo reads.
Japan has about 550 troops in the city of Samawah on a humanitarian mission in support of Iraqi reconstruction. Some 1,400 Australian troops are deployed in and around Iraq. Earlier this year, Australian Prime Minister John Howard sent an additional 450 troops to protect the Japanese military engineers - breaking a long-standing pledge not to increase his country's commitment.
Howard said Monday he and Blair would discuss Australia's troop deployment in Iraq when they meet in London later this month.
``We have quite a significant contingent in Iraq already and that contingent will stay until it's done its job,'' Howard said.
Reid said Sunday the document was simply one of several updates examining possible scenarios for the war in Iraq. The document was not dated, but he has been defense secretary since May 6.
``We have made it absolutely plain that we will stay in Iraq for as long as is needed,'' Reid said. ``No decisions on the future force posture of U.K. forces have been taken.''