British troops out of Iraq by end of 2009: Iraqi official

All British troops will be out of Iraq by the end of next year, Iraq’s national security advisor said on Friday, days before Baghdad was expected to vote on a controversial US military pact.”By the end of next year there will be no British troops in Iraq. By the end of 2009,” Muwafaq al-Rubaie said, adding that negotiations between London and Baghdad on the pull-out had begun two weeks ago.

A defence ministry spokesman in London said in response that Britain has “no timetable” for the withdrawal of its roughly 4,000 troops in Iraq, the vast majority of which are based in the southern Iraqi city of Basra.

 

“At the minute, we have no timetable,” the spokesman told AFP.

“We are hopefully making progress, we have made progress in Basra, and we are on course to meet the prime minister’s fundamental change of mission in 2009,” the spokesman said, reiterating previously-stated plans.

Baghdad has been racing to secure separate agreements with both Britain and the United States to replace the UN mandate currently governing the presence of foreign troops in the country, which expires December 31.

Iraq’s cabinet was expected to vote on the so-called Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), a wide-ranging US military pact, either Saturday or Sunday. The two sides have been wrangling over the document for months.

 

Rubaie insisted however that the agreement Iraq sought with the British was simpler and would not take as much time to complete.

“It will be a much shorter agreement with the UK,” Rubaie said. “And it progresses quite nicely. It’s much shorter and much simpler.”

He added that by the middle of next year there would be a “dramatic” reduction of British troops.

In July, Prime Minister Gordon Brown indicated he wanted to cut the number of Britain’s troop in the violence-wracked country but ruled out a timetable for their withdrawal.

But Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told a British daily last month that British troops are no longer necessary for the security of Iraq and should go home.

 

“We thank them for the role they have played, but I think that their stay is not necessary for maintaining security and control,” he was quoted as saying in The Times.

“There might be a need for their experience in training and some technological issues, but as a fighting force, I don’t think that is necessary.”

Iraq has seen dramatic improvements in security over the past year as US and Iraqi forces have allied with local tribal militias to flush insurgents and militias out of vast swaths of the country that were once ungovernable.

 

Iraq’s top Shiite Muslim cleric, meanwhile, made it clear on Friday that he will leave it to the government to decide on the controversial US military pact.

Associates of the reclusive leader said, however, any accord must respect Iraqi sovereignty.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani — revered as the highest religious authority by Iraq’s Shiite majority — rarely involves himself in politics and usually communicates his views only through associates.

“The Guide (Sistani) called for general elections which produced the country’s government and the parliament,” a religious official close to Sistani told AFP on condition of anonymity.

“It is their constitutional responsibility to decide on the agreement.”

 

Copyright AFP 2008