By Richard Norton-Taylor
Britain's six-year occupation of south Iraq will begin drawing to a close in March, and the last troops will leave Basra by June, a senior defence source disclosed yesterday.
But instead of handing over to Iraqi authorities, the British will be replaced at their Basra airport base by a large force of US troops, who will set up their own headquarters there, the source revealed.
The withdrawal follows months of planning and security assessments by British and American commanders. The timetable is expected to be confirmed by Gordon Brown early in the new year.
The initial rundown will be relatively modest, with the tempo increasing later, defence officials said. "It'll be very gradual, and then a fairly steep reduction," one said. By the end of June almost all the 4,000 UK troops now stationed at Basra will be gone. About 300 will remain at the request of the Iraqis to help set up colleges for officer cadets and senior staff officers, and to train the Iraqi navy.
Equipment, from tanks to tents, will be "tailored down", officials said, indicating a gradual rundown. Most of it will be transported back to Britain, in what has been named Operation Archive. The exception will be aerial surveillance drones and Merlin helicopters, which will go to Afghanistan for use by Britain's troops there.
Brown and John Hutton, defence secretary, have expressed the hope Britain's mission in Iraq will have been "fundamentally changed" by the middle of 2009.
However, this is the first time defence sources have put flesh on the withdrawal. It is now clear a crucial factor is the agreement by the US to take over Basra airport with several thousand troops. They will support Iraqi forces and protect convoys bringing supplies from Kuwait.
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