SECRET plans by the British Government to reduce troop numbers in Iraq
have been shelved amid growing concerns that the country is heading into full-scale
There is now no official date for the troop withdrawal.
The decision comes as ministers prepare to announce an unexpected redeployment
of up to 6000 members of the 7th Armoured Brigade — the renowned Desert
Rats — in the conflict zone next month.
Under the original withdrawal plans of Defence Secretary John Reid, up to 8500
troops would have returned to Britain by next month, with the rest going home
by the middle of next year.
Confirmation of the large redeployment and news that there is no end
date for withdrawal have sparked fears among soldiers and senior military figures
that Iraq may be developing into Britain's "Vietnam".
Britain's Ministry of Defence yesterday disputed the report, saying it had
never set a timetable for withdrawing its troops and that any reduction in numbers
would depend on conditions in Iraq.
But it confirmed that the Desert Rats would be redeployed before the end of
the year, suggesting that thousands of British troops will remain in the country
well into next year.
In New York, Iraq's Prime Minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, painted a rosy picture
of the situation, days after a surge of violence killed more than 200 people.
"We are marching towards political stability and economic prosperity,"
he told the UN General Assembly.
Iraqi security forces continued to prepare "to take over all security
matters" from the US-led multinational force, but the time was not yet
ripe for his country to become completely self-dependent, "even though
some Iraqi cities have prepared to do so", he said.
"Therefore we will be asking the multinational forces to leave these cities
once we are ready," Mr Jaafari said. He did not offer any timetable.
On Saturday evening, a remote-control car bomb detonated in a crowded marketplace
on the outskirts of Baghdad, killing at least 30 people.
In the southern city of Basra, about 200 armed members of the Mahdi Army Shiite
militia blocked streets with burning tyres, demanding the release of Sheikh
Ahmed Fartosi, arrested by British and Iraqi forces on Friday. He is accused
of launching raids against security forces.