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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 February 2007, 01:06 GMT
Iraq leader welcomes troops' exit
British soldier in Basra
Some 7,000 UK troops are currently serving in Iraq
Tony Blair's plan to recall 1,600 British troops from Iraq within the next few months has been welcomed by the country's president.

Jalal Talabani's spokesman said it was a "welcome catalyst" that would force Iraqi forces to take responsibility for the country's security.

It comes after Mr Blair said troop numbers would drop from 7,100 to 5,500 and possibly to 5,000 by late summer.

Remaining troops will stay into 2008, to provide back-up and secure borders.

Graph: UK troop numbers
COALITION FORCES
US -132,000
UK - 7,100
South Korea - 2,300
Poland - 900
Georgia - 800
Australia - 900
Romania - 600
Denmark - 460
El Salvador - 380
Bulgaria - 150
Sources: Brookings Institution; Globalsecurity.org; media reports

Hiwa Osman, the Iraqi president's spokesman, said Mr Blair's announcement was a "welcome catalyst for Iraqi forces to stand on their own feet and assume security responsibilities".

Mr Blair's statement follows a five-month security operation to quell violence in British-controlled Basra.

He said Operation Sinbad, aimed at allowing Iraqis to take the lead in frontline security in the city, had been successful.

The prime minister acknowledged that Basra was still "difficult and sometimes dangerous", but he said levels of murder and kidnappings had dropped and reconstruction was under way.

He said that it was important to show the Iraqis that Britain - and the other multinational force members - did not intend their forces to stay longer than necessary.

Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, praised the efforts of the British Army but wished the pullout could be quicker.

He told the BBC Radio 4 World at One programme: "We would have hoped that the process would've been accelerated further and speeded up rather than be spaced out. "

Defence Security Des Browne said he expected the government to look again at the numbers of troops being withdrawn at the end of the summer.

BBC political editor Nick Robinson
This is a slower withdrawal than many in the army had hoped for
BBC political editor Nick Robinson

British forces will hand over all bases to local authorities, except for Basra air base and Basra Palace, and most will withdraw to the air base shortly.

John Bolton, who until recently was the US ambassador to the UN and now works for a right wing think-tank, told the BBC that Mr Blair's decision was a step in the right direction.

He said: "The basis on which the decision was made rests with establishing greater security in the southern parts of Iraq and having the government of Iraq take a look at a larger role."

The proposed cut in numbers of British troops comes at the same time as 21,500 more US troops are being sent to Iraq.

President Bush's opponents say it shows the British have split with his policy, but US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the coalition "remains intact".

'Dangerous place'

On this subject, BBC Baghdad Correspondent David Loyn said: "I think this is a very significant day - a real divergence between Washington and Whitehall for the first time over Iraq."

Our correspondent said none of the Iraqis he had spoken to in coffee shops wanted British troops to remain in the country.

He said: "The whole reason that the British are able to leave is because there are Iraqi forces that they now think are just strong enough.

"But Basra is still, in Tony Blair's words, a difficult and dangerous place, which means that this is far short of the victory they wanted in 2003 but something, they hope, short of a total defeat."

Map: Iraq military zones
There are approximately 132,000 US personnel currently in Iraq accounting for more than 90% of the occupying force
Iraq is divided into 5 main military zones. The US controls the north and west of the country, as well as Baghdad
The Centre-South is run Polish forces, but US troops lead any major operations against insurgents in this area
The UK's 7,100 soldiers are based in the South East zone. Three provinces - Muthanna, al-Najaf and Dhi Qar are now under provisional Iraqi control. Basra and Maysan provinces are expected to follow suit in the first half of 2007





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Reaction to the troops pull-out



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