Reid visits British troops in Basra

John Reid has confirmed his belief that British troops could begin withdrawing from Iraq next year, ahead of a visit to UK forces in the southern town of Basra.

The defence secretary refrained from giving a timescale on when the pull-out might occur, but said Iraqi president Jalal Talabani’s suggestion of next year was feasible.

Pressure is mounting for a firm commitment on when British troops will leave the middle-eastern country – 98 soldiers have now died there, while Mr Talabani has indicated he would be happy for coalition forces to begin to leave next year.

Speaking ahead of his trip to Basra this morning, Mr Reid told Today: “I think the good news is that the numbers [of Iraqi troops] are greater than ever.

“There are now something like 212,000 [members of] security forces. There are around 120 trained Iraqi army battalions, of which some 80 are now involved in a partnership with the coalition forces fighting alongside it.”

He said their rate of development suggested that the possibility of coalition troops handing over the leadership of security operations – and subsequently the possibility of returning to Britain – “is indeed a prospect for next year”.

Mr Reid landed in Basra this morning and met troops from the divisional command, before visiting the headquarters of a division of the Iraqi army to assess their capabilities.

On his second visit to the country since taking up the defence brief, he also noted the importance of the upcoming Iraqi elections, which will create a new permanent government in the country.

“The elections on December 15th represent a further milestone for the political process in Iraq in what has already been a historical year,” he said.

“More than ten million people voted in January, and a constitution has been drafted and passed by the Iraqis, for the Iraqis. The next Iraqi parliament will have a vital role to play in shaping the country’s future.

“The Iraqi people have shown by their actions that they are determined to have the democratic rights they deserve. I wish them all the best for this momentous day.”