Page last updated at 16:00 GMT, Tuesday, 22 July 2008 17:00 UK

Troop draw down crucial for Army

By Caroline Wyatt
Defence correspondent, BBC News

Gordon Brown meeting British troops in Basra
Mr Brown flew to Basra to meet UK troops earlier this month

During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, 46,000 British personnel were engaged in the operation.

That number is now down to 4,100 and could decrease even further next year, according to the prime minister.

Gordon Brown's words "a fundamental change of mission" mean a dramatic scaling down of Britain's troops in southern Iraq from early next year.

It may not be a complete withdrawal, but more than five years since the invasion, it is at last looking possible that British troops could leave Basra - and leave behind them a functioning place.

British forces' main mission for the past months - training and mentoring the Iraqi army - has allowed the Iraqis themselves to re-take control of most of the city.

There may be further battles with militia forces but the hope is that Britain's long-awaited draw down will begin in earnest in 2009.

The draw down, prematurely promised for this year, will be crucial for the British Army in particular.

It's been stretched on operations ever since the invasion - trying to fight two medium-scale campaigns on two fronts, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The chief of the defence staff Sir Jock Stirrup recently warned that British forces could not carry on doing so indefinitely.

The release of troops and scarce equipment such as helicopters from Iraq should enable military commanders to dedicate more resources to fighting the Taleban in Afghanistan, a mission some believe was neglected in the focus on Iraq.

Some 176 British troops have died in Iraq since the invasion, with some 5bn spent on the war so far.

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