Brown refuses to set Iraq withdrawal date

Prime minister Gordon Brown has confirmed British troop levels in Iraq will decline but would not set a specific date for withdrawal.

Mr Brown has arrived in Iraq for surprise talks with top Iraqi officials, a week ahead of a scheduled statement regarding the future involvement of British troops in the Middle Eastern country.

And after Iraqi prime minister Nouri Maliki supported a proposal by US presidential hopeful Barack Obama for US troops to leave Iraq within 16 months, Mr Brown has confirmed that he plans to reduce the number of UK operatives stationed in the country.

Since the invasion of the country in 2003, UK troops have decreased from 26,000 in number to the present contingent of 4,000.

And following his meeting with Mr Maliki, Mr Brown told reporters travelling with him: “It’s certainly our intention that we reduce our troop numbers but I’m not going to give an artificial timetable for the moment.”

He added: “The tests for us will be how are we meeting the objectives that we’ve set. What progress can we show?”

In an interview with German magazine Der Spiegel, published on Saturday, Mr Maliki is quoted as saying: “US presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.”

British soldiers have handed over various provinces – they were responsible for after the removal of Saddam – to Iraqi control and recently transferred responsibility for the city of Basra’s security to local troops.

In March, the government decided to scrap plans to call back 1,500 troops as security deteriorated in the southern Iraqi city.

“Enormous progress has been made,” Mr Brown said in a press conference on Saturday.

“It’s important to recognise that security, prosperity, local democracy – these are the things that we are trying to move forward and trying to achieve.”

He added: “I am very grateful for the way the British forces behaved in such an exemplary manner. Their professionalism, and their courage, and their dedication is very much part of the progress that has happened.”