London: Britain will start withdrawing most of its more than 4,000 troops from Iraq in March and plans to leave only 400 personnel by mid-2009, British newspapers reported on Wednesday.
The newspapers, all quoting an unnamed senior defence source, said a force of several thousand US troops would replace the British troops and move into their base at the airport on the outskirts of the southern Iraqi city of Basra.
Plans were now well advanced for the withdrawal of Britain’s 4,100 troops even though a so-called “status of forces” agreement had yet to be reached with the Iraqi government, said the Times.
British special forces units operating from Baghdad would also be withdrawn and were expected to be transferred to Afghanistan to fight the Taleban, said the newspaper.
It said the withdrawal programme was still dependent on security conditions in southern Iraq, and that there would be some anxiety about possible violence during provincial elections due to be held on 31 January.
No immediate comment was available from the British government on the reports.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair was US President George W Bush’s strongest ally over the March 2003 invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. Blair sent 45,000 troops to join the US-led military action but the war cost him public support.
Gordon Brown, who took over from Blair in June last year, has reduced British troop levels in Iraq and bringing most of the remaining troops home could give him a boost at the next election, due by mid-2010.
In October, Defence Secretary John Hutton said British troops were on track to complete their mission in Iraq early next year.
On Tuesday, US General David Petraeus said violence in Iraq in the past few weeks had fallen to its lowest level since mid-2003 and that security gains, while still at risk of reversal, were less fragile than before.