By IAN BRUCE and MICHAEL SETTLE | The prospect of Britain’s 4100-strong force in Iraq being cut this year was yesterday ruled out by the nation’s top military commander but he made clear numbers look set to be reduced in 2009.
Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, said that the numbers of British military personnel in Iraq should come down to a “more sustainable operational tempo” over the course of 2009.
However, The Herald understands almost all of the UK’s garrison on the outskirts of Basra could be withdrawn by the end of next year, leaving only special forces based in Baghdad and Balad as well as a training team to mentor Iraqi government forces.
Earlier this year, expectations had been high that the 4100 personnel would be cut to 2500 but a flare-up of insurgency activity in Basra meant this was put on hold.
Gordon Brown is due in the next few days to give a Commons statement, outlining the status of the UK’s role in Iraq. There had been an expectation the Prime Minister might signal a substantial cut in troop numbers to take place later in the year and as a means of bolstering levels in Afghanistan.
However, it appears that Sir Jock has pre-empted Mr Brown with his remarks yesterday. The Air Chief Marshall acknowledged that military numbers in Iraq had not come down as quickly as had been hoped.
He explained: “It is a delay caused by a number of factors, the principle one of which is that we trained the 10th Division of the Iraqi army in Basra but then the Iraqis decided to move the 10th Division out of Basra and form a new division, the 14th Division, and we are now busy training and mentoring that one.”
Sir Jock said that, while the international community’s involvement in Afghanistan would have to carry on for decades, Britain’s military commitment would continue for “a few years”. “The international community, if the enterprise is to be successful, will need to engage for decades,” he said.
“What I am talking about is across the full spectrum of effect in terms of reconstruction, governance, finance and the economy and so on.
“In terms of the military, we will be there for a few years.”
In America, the Pentagon has drawn up contingency plans to bring three of its 15 combat brigades, about 15,000 soldiers, home following the success of last year’s “surge” tactics and a continuing reduction in violence.
Pentagon officials said no additional US forces would go to Afghanistan until next spring, when fighting is expected to intensify again with the arrival of the traditional campaigning season.
Senior British commanders have told Downing Street that the continued deployment of more than 8000 troops in Afghanistan and 4000 in Iraq cannot be sustained for much longer.
Whitehall sources told The Herald politicians and the top brass were “keeping their fingers crossed” that the security situation in Basra would remain stable to allow an orderly withdrawal.