Tuesday, March 3, 2009
British forces will leave Iraq this year with democracy "firmly rooted" and al Qaeda largely thwarted, a senior British army officer said in an interview published on Monday.
Lieutenant General John Cooper, outgoing deputy commanding general of the U.S.-led Multinational Force in Iraq, told the Guardian newspaper that a U.S. troop "surge" in 2007 and this year's provincial elections had been crucial in improving conditions.
The planned withdrawal of Western forces has sparked concerns about a power vacuum and a possible return to violence, six years after U.S. troops led an invasion to topple the government of Saddam Hussein.
"We have got democracy rooted here," Cooper said, "Clearly there is a long way to go to develop things. The provincial elections show that Iraqis have an appetite for it. They were free, fair and credible, and that reflects a desire for change."
The regional elections held on Jan. 31 were Iraq's most peaceful since the invasion, raising hopes that years of sectarian bloodshed and insurgency could be coming to an end.
The British general said support for al Qaeda had withered because insurgents had targeted the people they claimed to represent.
"They have suffered significant reverses and their ability to operate and target civilians has been diminished. Their organisational ability has been greatly reduced."
Britain's 4,100 troops will start pulling out of their base in the southerly oil city of Basra from May 31. The withdrawal will be complete by July 31, although 400 reserves will remain on the ground to help train Iraqi naval forces.
U.S. President Barack Obama said last week he would end U.S. combat operations in Iraq in 18 months' time, but leave as many as 50,000 troops there to provide stability. (Reporting by Matt Falloon; Editing by Kevin Liffey)