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Iraq: Britain Delays Troop Cuts


http://gdb.rferl.org/79F35595-5A35-49D7-9CD3-64CC4727F20B_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/79F35595-5A35-49D7-9CD3-64CC4727F20B_mw800_mh600.jpg British soliders patrol around the airport of the southern city of Al-Basrah (AFP) Britain has postponed plans to withdraw up to 1,500 troops from Iraq, due to renewed violence in the south of the country.


"In the light of the last week's events," British Defense Secretary Des Browne told the House of Commons on April 1, "it is prudent that we pause any further reductions while the current situation is unfolding."


The British government announced in October that it hoped to reduce troop levels to 2,500 in the spring of this year, but Browne said last week's violence showed any reduction would be premature.


"At this stage," he said, "we intend to keep our forces at their current levels of around 4,000 as we work with our coalition partners and with the Iraqis to assess future requirements."


Browne said he hoped to give an update on Britain's troop plans for Iraq later in April. The British soldiers are mainly stationed at Al-Basrah airport, on the outskirts of the city.


Last week, Iraqi government forces tried to take control of Al-Basrah and other Shi’ite areas from the Al-Mahdi Army, a Shi’ite militia loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.


British troops did not engage in combat, but Browne said British tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery did provide support to Iraqi units on the ground. British units also provided surveillance, flew missions over Al-Basrah, and used helicopters to help resupply the Iraqi security forces.


Civilian Deaths Rise


Iraqi government figures show that fighting drove civilian deaths to their highest level since August.


Figures compiled by the Iraqi Health, Interior, and Defense ministries showed that at least 1,720 people were killed in violence in March. That was up sharply from 953 in February. Reports say many of the dead were civilians caught in the cross fire.


The fighting ended when al-Sadr ordered his fighters off the streets in a deal with the authorities. However, al-Sadr's fighters refused to surrender their weapons


Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki hailed the operation as a "success" and pledged to recruit 10,000 extra troops to keep order in Al-Basrah. Al-Sadr, meanwhile, thanked his fighters for "defending your people, your land, and your honor."


Analysts say a victory against the militia was not achieved. Browne, however, offered no criticism of the Iraqi effort to regain control of Al-Basrah from Shi’ite militias and criminal gangs, which have effectively ruled the streets for nearly three years.

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