In visit to Iraq, Brown says 1,000 more British troops to be withdrawn by year's end

BAGHDAD, Iraq: Iraq will take over security from British troops in Basra province within two months, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told reporters Tuesday after meeting with Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who said 1,000 more British troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by year's end.

Brown was on an unannounced visit, which also was to include a session with U.S. Commander David Petraeus before the British leader flies to Basra to meet with his forces and military leaders in the oil-rich region in the deep south of Iraq.

"We are prepared to take over security of Basra within two months and we will," al-Maliki said, after the meeting in his Green Zone office. "Basra will be one of the provinces where Iraqi forces will completely take over security."

Brown confirmed al-Maliki's plans and said, "as we move to overwatch, we can move down to 4,500." Brown, who said he was optimistic the troops would be home by Christmas, spoke at the Green Zone residence of Britain's top commander in Iraq Gen. Bill Rollo.

Brown added that any further decision on British troop withdrawals would be made next year.

British troops vacated their last remaining downtown Basra base last month, accelerating calls from the British public to reduce force levels further.

Britain currently has about 5,500 soldiers based mainly at an air base on the fringes of the southern city of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, 550 kilometers (340 miles) southeast of Baghdad.

Brown disclosed the troop withdrawal before flying to Basra for meetings with British troops and their commanders.

Britain's defense ministry said rocket and mortar attacks on their base at Basra airport had fallen sharply in the last month, with only a few attempted strikes.

Karim al-Miahi, the head of the Basra security committee and a member in the provincial council said, "The withdrawal of the British forces has had a negative effect on security in the city. Iraqi forces still are not able to control the situation which has deteriorated over the past three weeks. There has been an increase in assassinations of police and religious leaders. As for the areas around the British base, the situation is more stable. Shelling there has stopped."

Abdul-Maunim Karim, 50, a retired sailor who lives near the presidential palace now vacated by the British, agreed the area was quieter because the shelling had stopped. "But throughout the city violence remains at about the levels before the British troops left."

Ex-prime minister Tony Blair was greeted with a salvo of mortars as he made a final visit to the camp before leaving office in June. Soldiers at the time reported as many as 10 strikes a day.

Military leaders hope that Britain will remain in charge only of training Iraq troops and border guards, securing key supply lines and responding to emergencies when called on by local commanders.

But U.S. and Iraqi authorities have aired concerns that a British drawdown could jeopardize the region's rich oil resources and the land supply routes from Kuwait to Baghdad.

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