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Britain plans major Iraq troops pullout over 18 months
Updated: 2005-07-05 08:58

Britain's defence ministry has drafted plans for a significant troop withdrawal from Iraq over the next 18 months and a big deployment to Afghanistan.

When asked about the article however, a defence ministry spokesman stuck to the official position that British troops would be on the ground in Iraq for as long as necessary to support the Iraqi government.

"In what would represent the biggest operational shake-up involving the armed forces since the Iraq war, the first stage of a run-down in military operations is likely to take place this autumn with a handover of security to Iraqis in at least two southern provinces," the Financial Times said.

Without citing sources, the newspaper reported that the plans depended on the ability of Iraq's home-grown security forces to take over responsibility for peacekeeping operations -- a job they have so far failed to do in violent areas in Baghdad and to the north.

British forces, however, are based in the Shia-dominated south of the country, where there are far fewer rebel attacks compared with the US monitored Sunni areas in and around the Iraqi capital.

"Senior UK officers believe the four south-east provinces under UK command, which are largely Shia and have not seen the same violence as more Sunni-dominated areas north of Baghdad, may be ready for a handover earlier than those under US command," the Financial Times reported.

The economic daily said any withdrawal could be timed to coincide with plans being developed to deploy up to 3,000 troops to Afghanistan before the end of 2005.

"This deployment would take the lead in a NATO force to take over from US troops in the south of Afghanistan," it reported.

"In that role, the UK forces would help fight insurgents and provide support for the war on narcotics in the region."

The Financial Times said the Ministry of Defence insisted that no decision had been made on Afghan or Iraqi deployments.

At the same time, it noted that Defence Secretary John Reid said Iraqi forces could begin to take charge of security in their country within a year.

Reid made the comments in an interview on BBC radio Monday, while acknowledging that the insurgency in Iraq could go on for some time.

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