Britain announced Wednesday it will withdraw all but a handful of its 4,000 soldiers from Iraq next year, ending a mission that was unpopular at home and failed to curb the rise of Iranian-backed Shiite militias in the south.
The decision comes as the United States is weighing a drawdown in its nearly 150,000-strong force. President-elect Barack Obama has called for withdrawing all combat troops from Iraq by the spring of 2010, shifting responsibility to the Iraqis for the defense of the country against Sunni and Shiite extremists.
The British announcement, which was expected, signals a conclusion to the role of the second biggest troop contributor to the multinational coalition after the United States. More than 45,000 British troops took part in the March 2003 invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein.
In London, the Defense Ministry said all but a few hundred of the 4,000 soldiers, most of them in the heavily Shiite south, would be gone by June.
The government did not say when the withdrawal would begin. But the Daily Telegraph newspaper of London said it would start in March, when a U.S. unit takes over the British headquarters at the airport in Iraq’s second-largest city, Basra.
A U.S. brigade will deploy to the south to train Iraqi soldiers and secure vital supply lines from Kuwait, the newspaper said. The Associated Press requested comment from the U.S. command but received no reply.
The British have not confirmed whether they will now send more soldiers to Afghanistan. Military commanders have warned that British troops are overstretched from commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Britain has some 7,800 soldiers.
via The Associated Press: Britain to withdraw most troops from Iraq by June.