UK troops may pull out of Iraq by mid-2008
Britain's Lieutenant General Nick Houghton has outlined a phased two-year withdrawal plan from Iraq.india Updated: Mar 07, 2006 11:07 IST
Britain plans to pull out nearly all its soldiers from Iraq by the summer of 2008, with the first withdrawals within weeks, a top military commander said in an interview published on Tuesday.
Lieutenant General Nick Houghton, Britain's most senior officer in Iraq, outlined a phased two-year withdrawal plan in an interview with the Daily Telegraph newspaper.
"There is a fine line between staying too long and leaving too soon," he was quoted as saying. "A military transition over two years has a reasonable chance of avoiding the pitfalls of overstaying our welcome but gives us the best opportunity of consolidating the Iraqi security forces."
Britain has given no firm timetable for the withdrawal of its 8,000 troops in Iraq, based in and around the southern port of Basra.
Houghton said the timeline would work only if Iraqi politicians elected in the December general election formed a national unity government and sectarian tensions did not worsen.
"It is reversible to an extent as there will be residual coalition forces present who can maintain a very low profile," he said. "There may be a need to go back in somewhere."
He said the proposals had been agreed with US military chiefs, but were not set in stone.
Houghton repeated the long-held position in Washington and London that his forces would only leave once security could be handed over to Iraqi forces.
Last Sunday, the US military in Iraq said media reports that the United States and Britain planned to pull out all their troops by the spring of 2007 were "completely false" and reiterated there was no timetable for withdrawal
Two British newspapers reported in their Sunday editions that the pullout plan followed an acceptance by the two governments that the presence of foreign troops in Iraq was now a large obstacle to securing peace.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been under pressure to give more details of a pullout. Many Britons opposed the deployment of troops to join the US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Relations with Iraqi officials and people have soured. Houghton said a gradual withdrawal needed to begin soon to make it clear to the Iraqi people that British troops had no intention of staying forever.
British commanders have said the area they patrol has become more dangerous over the past eight to nine months as guerrillas develop deadlier forms of roadside bombs.
Last month, two British soldiers were killed in an attack on a patrol in Amara, 360 km southeast of Baghdad. It took the British death toll in Iraq to more than 100.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman in London said it was aware of Houghton's interview, but stressed no timetable had been finalised.
"The general was commenting on recent speculation on the timing of handover," he said. "The key point is that no decisions on timing or future force levels have been taken."