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Blair in Iraq troop cutback

London, Feb. 21 (Reuters): Britain said today it would withdraw almost a quarter of its troops from Iraq in coming months when thousands of additional US soldiers will arrive to try to restore order in Baghdad.

The White House portrayed the British move as a sign of progress in Iraq but Democrats seized on it to pressure President George W. Bush to bring US troops home.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose popularity at home has sunk because of his decision go to war in Iraq, said British troop levels would be reduced by 1,600, but soldiers would remain into 2008 to provide support and training if Iraq wanted. “The actual reduction in forces will be from the present 7,100 — itself down from over 9,000 two years ago — to roughly 5,500,” he told parliament.

Following Britain’s lead, Denmark and Lithuania said they would withdraw most of their troops from Iraq by August. Many other countries which joined the US-led operation, such as Japan and Spain, have already pulled out their troops.

Bush, in contrast, is sending 21,500 more troops to Iraq where US forces number some 141,000.

Blair, due to step down later this year, said the British plans reflected the vastly different security conditions faced by US troops in Baghdad, and those in southern Iraq where Britain handed over command of the main Iraqi army unit in Basra to Iraqis yesterday.

“What all of this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be. But it does mean that the next chapter in Basra’s history can be written by Iraqis,” he said. Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said the British withdrawal would play into the hands of Iranian-backed Shias.

In Basra, Iraq’s second city and main centre for oil production, many expressed relief at the planned British withdrawal but some voiced fears it was premature.

“They were occupiers and they should have left long ago,” said Nour Abdul-Muttalib, 29, teacher. Jaafar Saleem, 38, a businessman in the city, said: “I think their exit will produce lawlessness in the city.”

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