LONDON - Britain's remaining troops in Iraq will begin withdrawing from the country in March on a timetable that will aim to leave only a small training force of 300 to 400 by June, according to Defense Ministry officials quoted by the BBC and several of Britain's major newspapers on Wednesday.
The long-expected drawdown of the British force next year from its current level of 4,100 troops will bring an effective end to Britain's role as the principal partner of the United States in the occupation of Iraq. In the invasion in March 2003, a British force of more than 46,000 troops participated in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
In July, Prime Minister Gordon Brown already outlined a tentative plan for withdrawing most of Britain's remaining troops early in 2009 but gave no fixed timetable and left open the number of troops who would be returning home. The Defense Ministry issued a statement after the flurry of news reports about the withdrawal that did not deny their accuracy. Although the ministry did not confirm that March would mark the beginning of the drawdown, it confirmed that the ministry was "expecting to see a fundamental change of mission in early 2009."
As for the timetable involved in the withdrawal, the statement added, "Our position remains that we will judge it on military advice at the time."
The leaking of the British withdrawal plan appeared to have been prompted, at least in part, by President-elect Barack Obama's triumph in the presidential election last month, and his plans to draw up a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.
Mr. Brown's determination to withdraw Britain's Iraq contingent ahead of a general election that must be held here by June 2010 has led to months of edgy negotiations with the Bush administration.
American military commanders have contingency plans for American troops to replace the departing British units at their base outside Basra, the principal city in southern Iraq, and the British news reports on Wednesday said that was now a firm plan. But there has been no announcement of the shift from the Pentagon, possibly because the planning process there is now caught up with the Bush-Obama transition that will not be complete until Mr. Obama's inauguration in January.
Britain's plans - and its talks with Washington - have been complicated by pressure from the Bush Administration on the Brown government to couple the British drawdown in Iraq with an increase of British troop strength in Afghanistan. It is a demand that is not likely to relent under Mr. Obama, who has said that he plans to increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan as he refocuses the American military effort to make Afghanistan the focus of the American war on terrorism.
In recent months, British officials have been unwilling to commit to increase British troop strength in Afghanistan, though there have been signs that their position may ease after Mr. Obama takes office. A force of 7,800 British soldiers - proportional to populations of Britain and the United States, a commitment similar in size to the 33,000 American troops in Afghanistan - has been engaged in fierce combat with the Taliban in the southwestern province of Helmand. The British force is second only in size to the American force among more than 30 nations that have troops in Afghanistan.
British commanders have said that they need to get their troops out of Iraq without immediately recommitting them to Afghanistan as part of a broader plan to lower the "operational tempo" of Britain's military commitments, which have placed severe strains on Britain's armed forces. They have also said they are reluctant to commit more British troops to Afghanistan unless other NATO nations, including France and Germany, agree to step up their troop levels, and to share combat strains that have hitherto rested mainly on American, British and Canadian troops.
Meanwhile, the need to replace the departing British troops in Basra will place new strains on American commanders in Iraq. Since 2003, they have relied on British troops to maintain stability in southern Iraq and guard the vital overland supply route from Kuwait, past Basra and on into central Iraq, where most of the 130,000 American troops are based. Now, if the British reports are confirmed, they will have to detach an American force of brigade strength to the south, just as they begin drawing down their own troop levels further north.
The news reports, in The Times and The Guardian, among other British publications, quoted senior officials at the Defense Ministry as saying that the British force would be replaced by a brigade of 4,000 to 5,000 American troops, under a two-star American general, who would take over the base at Basra airport that has served as Britain's headquarters throughout the conflict.
All but a few hundred of the British troops remaining in Iraq are based at the airport, after withdrawing from outposts in the city of Basra last year. Like the departing British troops, the American force taking over at Basra would combine the task of protecting the supply route to the north with the role of a strategic reserve to Iraqi troops in Basra and elsewhere in southern Iraq, including the troublesome city of Amarah, northeast of Basra, the British reports said.
The British withdrawal will include the special forces troops, mainly from the Special Air Service, who have been partnered with American special forces at a base outside Baghdad, the British news reports said. Special forces operations have played a vital role in the Iraq conflict, and American commanders have said in the past that the role of the British contingent, involving a few hundred men, has been central to the special forces' success.
According to The Guardian and The Times, the 300 to 400 British service personnel who will remain after the drawdown will include a small force at the coalition forces' headquarters in Baghdad, where a British three-star general has until now served as deputy commander to the four-star American general in overall command of coalition forces in Iraq, currently Gen. Raymond T. Odierno.
The remaining British contingent will mainly be assigned to tasks in the training of Iraq's armed forces, including the development of the country's fledgling navy, based at the port of Umm Qasr south of Basra, and officer training for the Iraqi army at colleges in Basra and Baghdad, the British newspaper reports said. Since early in the occupation, Iraq's main officer training academy outside Baghdad has been mainly a British responsibility.
Prime Minister Brown and other senior officials have been saying for months that British forces have largely fulfilled the mission of stabilizing the situation in Basra and the neighboring provinces in southern Iraq, and mentoring the Iraqi forces that have taken over day-to-day responsibility for security in the region. Their goal now, they have said, is to transit to a military relationship with Iraq similar to the ones Britain has with many other developing countries, centering on training local forces.
The withdrawal plan outlined in the British news reports appeared to have preempted a formal statement on its plans for Iraq that the government has promised to make in the parliament. The delay in making the statement appears to have reflected the delicate negotiations in recent months with Washington, and the need, since Mr. Obama's election, to reach agreement with the incoming administration, a process likely to have been eased, at least to some extent, by Mr. Obama's decision to retain Robert Gates, President Bush's defense secretary, in the post.
By using a background briefing by senior defense officials to leak details of its plans to pull most of its troops out of the country in the next six months, instead of waiting for a formal statement in the House of Commons, the Brown government may have been hoping to send a political signal to opponents of the Iraq war in Britain, where opposition to the Iraq war has been intense, without appearing to jump the gun on its talks with Washington.