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MoD to pull troops out of Iraq within a year

London Telegraph | June 3, 2007 
Sean Rayment and Patrick Hennessy

Military chiefs are drawing up plans to withdraw all British troops from Iraq within 12 months.

A fresh timetable, which would see a unilateral withdrawal from the war-torn country by next May, will be presented to Gordon Brown within weeks.

It is understood that when Mr Brown becomes prime minister later this month, he will be told by defence chiefs that Britain should withdraw from Iraq in "quick order" and concentrate on fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Until now, the Government and the military have both insisted the withdrawal of troops from Iraq would be dictated by "events and not time". But the lack of progress in Iraq and the need to send more troops to Afghanistan, where success is regarded by some in the military as easier to measure, has forced the Government to "accelerate its withdrawal plan".

The disclosure that Britain is planning a unilateral pull-out is likely to be met with dismay by US generals, who hoped Britain would fight alongside their troops for as long as America had a military presence in Iraq.

A senior military official told The Sunday Telegraph: "Britain is not physically capable of fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq at the same time. The question is: which do we give up? The Government and the defence chiefs have decided that we should give up Iraq.

"There is an agreed timetable, a glide path, which will see a complete unilateral withdrawal in 12 months."

The plan, however, has not met with the approval of all senior officers, many of whom believe that Iraq is strategically more important to Britain's interests than Afghanistan.

The official added: "There is a belief within the Ministry of Defence and Government that success is easier to measure in Afghanistan and that makes it more attractive.

"Though it is clear to many, both in the US and the British armed forces, that Iraq is strategically far more important than Afghanistan, there is no popular support for the war in Iraq. I think history will show that this was the wrong choice."

Senior figures in Whitehall - including high-ranking civil servants and ministers - are also believed to be anticipating a quicker withdrawal.

A former cabinet minister has been charged with evaluating how such a move would be presented to the public after Mr Brown takes charge.

A minister with close links to the Chancellor's camp said: "Gordon will not do anything foolish and will ultimately be guided by the views of the military commanders. But there is a chance for progress now. Our withdrawal schedule can be altered."

The first signs that Britain was considering withdrawing from Iraq earlier than had previously been planned first emerged last October when General Sir Richard Dannatt, the chief of the defence staff, said Britain should withdraw troops "some time soon" because "our presence exacerbates the security problems".

Since the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, the security situation has dramatically deteriorated and Iraq is now regarded as the most dangerous country on earth. British troops in Basra are attacked every time they leave their bases and military compounds are bombarded day and night.

Troops rarely conduct routine patrols in the city, and those who do expect to be attacked within 20 minutes of venturing out.

In Baghdad, the situation is far worse. Sectarian mass murder has become a daily event and the police have been completely infiltrated by insurgent groups.

Since the war began, 149 British personnel have been killed in Iraq and hundreds more injured, while 3,475 US troops have died and more than 26,000 injured.

The official added: "At the most senior level in the MoD, the decision has been taken that Britain should be 'investing' in Afghanistan rather than Iraq, and that is the advice that will be given to Gordon Brown."

The previous plan of handing over provinces and bases to Iraqi forces and maintaining a small unit at Basra airfield for several years has been shelved.

A source close to Mr Brown said: "Gordon has made clear that we will continue to meet our commitments to our allies and to the Iraqi people.

"All decisions on troop deployment will continue to be made according to our operational objectives - not political timetables."

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