Wednesday, October 25, 2006

U.S. official: Britain seeks Iraq pullout in a year

U.S. official: Britain seeks Iraq pullout in a year
By Kristin Roberts

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The British military hoped to withdraw troops from Iraq within about a year and London wanted to focus on the war in Afghanistan, a U.S. defense official said on Tuesday.

British officials had told U.S. counterparts the British military was "near the breaking point" due to long deployments in Iraq and weak retention of personnel, said the official, asking not to be identified.

The official's comments offered the first hint Britain's military may have a timetable for withdrawal in mind.

"It's about a year, give or take a few months," the official said.

But another U.S. defense official played down the withdrawal issue, and no immediate comment was available from British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour government.

The official said British discussions about troop levels were part of regular, internal military reviews and that the British government had not approached senior U.S. officials with adjustment plans or timetables.

On Sunday, British Defense Secretary Des Browne said Britain was "quite far down" the road toward transferring responsibility for security in Iraq to Iraqi forces but British troops would leave only when the job was done.

About 7,200 British troops are based in southern Iraq and Blair has been U.S. President George W. Bush's closest ally over Iraq.

Britain has launched a large new operation in Afghanistan this year, and commanders have acknowledged they had hoped to accelerate force reductions in Iraq.

Blair and Bush face intense pressure at home over Iraq because of the unrelenting violence.

An opinion poll published on Tuesday showed more than 60 percent of Britons want their troops to be withdrawn this year, and surveys show Bush's policy on Iraq may cost his Republican Party control of Congress in November 7 elections.

A British withdrawal could put more stress on U.S. forces, already facing equipment and funding shortfalls and the possibility of repeat tours of duty in Iraq.

Britain has handed over authority to Iraqi forces for two of the four provinces in its area of responsibility in the south.

(Additional reporting by Peter Graff in London)