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Wed 17 Dec 2008 03:43 PM

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PM Brown: UK troops to leave Iraq in H1 2009

British leader on Baghdad visit says mission will be over in first half of year.

British forces will wrap up their mission in Iraq in the first half of next year, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said during a surprise trip to Baghdad on Wednesday.

"By the end of May, or earlier, the mission will be completed," Brown said at a joint press conference with his Iraqi opposite number Nuri al-Maliki, adding that the troops would go home over the following two months.

Brown is on his fourth visit to Iraq since he took office in June last year, hot on the heels of a farewell trip by George W. Bush that was marked by an Iraqi journalist hurling his shoes at the US president.

Britain, Washington's top ally in the US-led invasion of 2003, currently has around 4,100 troops in Iraq, based at Basra airport outside the southern oil port city.

"The role played by the UK combat forces is drawing to a close. These forces will have completed their tasks in the first half of 2009 and will then leave Iraq," according to a joint statement by Brown and Maliki.

The timetable is in line with a bill approved by the Iraqi cabinet calling for all foreign troops except for American forces - whose fate is governed by a landmark US-Iraq security pact - to pull out by the end of July.

"The partnership between the two countries will continue to take on new dimensions and will be strengthened through cooperation in all areas due to the prominent position of the UK within the EU and the United Nations Security Council," the joint statement said.

"This relationship of cooperation and friendship between Iraq and the UK is entering a new era and will yield continuing cooperation that will last for many years to come."

Brown said he would make a statement to British parliament on Thursday on troop numbers, adding that: "The biggest reduction will be at the end part of the period."

Citing a senior defence source, the BBC and The Times newspaper have said the pullout was planned to begin in March if provincial elections set for the end of January passed off peacefully.

"We plan - subject to the conditions on the ground and the advice of military commanders - to reduce our force levels in Iraq as we complete our key tasks in Basra in the early months of next year," a Ministry of Defence spokesman said.

But he added: "Final decisions on the timing of the drawdown will depend on the circumstances at the time.

British commanders had intended to reduce troop numbers to 2,500 earlier this year, though conditions on the ground prevented them from doing so.

During his visit to Iraq, Brown is also keen for a progress report on four objectives due to be completed before British troop numbers can be reduced, the government sources said.

These were training the Iraqi army in Basra, transferring Basra airport to civilian use, aiding local economic development and providing support for the January 31 provincial election -- the first vote in the country since 2005.

British troop numbers involved in the Iraq operation peaked at 46,000 in March and April 2003 for the invasion.

A total of 178 British troops have died in Iraq since the invasion, including 136 were killed as a result of hostile action. The last died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Basra last Thursday.

Britain has spent five billion pounds ($7.6 billion) on the war in Iraq, up to the end of the 2006-2007 financial year, and since 2003, it has pledged a total commitment of 744 million pounds ($1.14 billion) towards reconstruction.

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