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The Times has learnt that Mr Blair will emphasise that his hopes of withdrawal will be conditional on signs that the Iraqi forces are able to fulfil their mission. The next rotation of troops in Basra — with 1 Mechanised Brigade taking over from 19 Light Brigade in the early summer — had been due to go ahead without any reduction in numbers.
There has been a growing view that the continued presence of British troops may have contributed to the violence in the city. Soldiers in Basra have predicted that the attacks will fall off when the British leave.
One factor in the move has been the assessment that the international force in Iraq will not recreate a perfect Western-style democracy. General Sir Richard Dannatt, chief of the General Staff, said in October that the Government should lower its expectations in Iraq.
Sir Richard, who took over from General Sir Mike Jackson in August, said that the continuing presence in Iraq of British troops was “exacerbating the security problems” and that they should come home soon.
This contrasted with Mr Blair, who told the Labour Party conference that it was important for troops to remain in Iraq to secure the peace. He said: “If we retreat now, we won’t be safer; we will be committing a craven act of surrender that will put our future security in the deepest peril.”
I suspect this will hand ammunition to those in the US who also argue for a withdrawal sooner rather than later.