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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 October 2007, 15:56 GMT 16:56 UK
Withdrawing troops 'a neat trick'
By James Hardy
Political correspondent, BBC News

Gordon Brown in Iraq
Did Mr Brown work his magic?
Ever the showman, Gordon Brown produced with a flourish a surprise Christmas present for the British Army.

A reduction of 1,000 troops in Iraq as the fourth and final southern province controlled by British forces is handed back to the locals.

It was a gesture typical of a politician renowned during his days as chancellor for pulling unlikely economic rabbits out of his budget-day hat.

But is the announcement all it seems? Are we really at the beginning of the end of this divisive episode?

Less violence

Critics may detect a sleight-of-hand. Of the 1,000 troops to be withdrawn, 500 were already due to pull out and 4,500 will remain.

They will be more-or-less confined to base at Basra airport playing a training and support role to the Iraqi authorities.

Back in the summer, the defence minister Bob Ainsworth warned that to cut numbers much below 5,000 would leave the force unable to adequately defend itself.

Since then - and particularly since the British pull-out from Basra Palace in the city centre last month - violence against British forces has fallen dramatically.

So Mr Brown appears to have taken out the maximum possible number of troops while trying to avoid unnecessary risk to those left behind.

Neat trick

It is a neat and eye-catching political trick. With the possibility of an autumn poll looming, Labour strategists will doubtless be aware that it will do no harm in trying to win back supporters lost at the last election.

But as Mr Brown's helicopter convoy flew fast and low over Baghdad, en route to Basra, it seemed clear that Britain's involvement in Iraq has a long time to run.

Officials travelling with the prime minister admit the performance of the Iraqi authorities is crucial.

Mr Brown himself said there could be no lasting security without political reconciliation and economic regeneration.

If the Iraqis are not up to that challenge, British troops could still be on the ground many months from now.

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