Defence chiefs are planning to reduce the size of the British military force in Iraq from 9,000 to 3,500 troops within 12 months as part of a phased withdrawal from Iraq, The Telegraph can reveal.
In the first stage of Britain's "exit strategy", troops will be withdrawn from three of the Army's five military bases in southern Iraq by April 2006.
The withdrawal of British troops is possible because Iraqis are ‘starting to take control of their own situation’
The move also fits in with a plan to increase British troop numbers in Afghanistan in a renewed attempt to hunt down Osama bin Laden and other senior al-Qa'eda figures who are believed to be hiding close to the country's border with Pakistan.
Senior American and British military figures believe that withdrawals can begin by April next year because coalition forces will have trained enough members of the Iraqi defence and police forces to take control of security throughout Iraq.
The disclosure coincides with an announcement by a senior United States Marine Corps general that America would probably start withdrawing its troops in 12 to 24 months.
Tony Blair has always insisted that British troops will remain in Iraq for as long as they are needed but as the security situation in the southern half of the country stabilises the justification for a retaining sizeable British military presence has diminished.
Lt Gen James Conway of the US marines. recently said that the withdrawal of American troops within the same time frame as the British was possible because Iraqis were "starting to take control of their own situation".
Terrorist attacks against American soldiers have declined since the Iraqi national elections in January.
He said that American and British troops had trained and equipped 147,000 Iraqis, who will eventually form part of a 240,000-strong security force.
A third of all British and US troops in Iraq, about 40,000, are committed to training and advising the Iraqi military through embedded teams of soldiers.
British troops are based in five locations in southern Iraq, including Camp Abu Naji in Al Amarah, which is home to a battle group of about 1,000 armoured infantry troops. The remainder of the 9,000 troops are split between the three camps in Basra and the logistics base at Shaibah, 25 miles south of the city. From next year Camp Abu Naji and the Shaibah logistics base will be the only locations occupied by British forces. Shaibah will also be the location of an armoured rapid reaction force that will be deployed in the event of insurgent activity. About 1,300 troops, will also remain on high readiness in Cyprus.
The Telegraph has also learnt that the Government plans to send more troops to Afghanistan next year to support the deployment of Nato's Allied Rapid Reaction Corps headquarters, which will continue the hunt for Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, and Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qa'eda.
A senior Army officer said: "Iraq remains a side issue in the war against terrorism although the rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's organisation has given Islamic militants a new front. The real war against terror still needs to be won in Afghanistan, where the leaders of al-Qa'eda and the Taliban are still hiding. Their death or capture will be a decisive blow."
Last night a Ministry of Defence spokesman said: "Troop numbers in Iraq are continually kept under review and we will remain in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi authorities to provide security assistance for the Iraqi forces. We are not going to speculate on future troop levels and timescales."