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Brown Signals U.K. Cut In Iraq Troop Levels

Prime Minister Gordon Brown
BAGHDAD -- Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said that he wants to reduce British troop levels in Iraq, but he refused to set any timetable for their departure.

Brown flew in to Baghdad earlier in the day in the latest in a series of high-profile visitors who have sought to bolster Prime Minister al-Maliki's government and encourage investment now that attacks are at their lowest level since early 2004.

Britain sent 45,000 troops to take part in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, but only some 4,000 remain at an airport near the southern city of Al-Basrah where they are training Iraqi security forces.

"It's certainly our intention that we reduce our troop numbers, but I'm not going to give an artificial timetable for the moment," Brown told reporters traveling with him after meeting with al-Maliki. "The tests for us will be how are we meeting the objectives that we've set. What progress can we show?"

Brown's visit coincides with the Iraqi government's growing confidence in its ability to secure the country.

In an interview with "Der Spiegel" magazine released the same day, al-Maliki said he wanted U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible.

"U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes," he said.

It is the first time he has backed the withdrawal timetable put forward by Obama, who is visiting Afghanistan and is set to go to Iraq as part of a tour of Europe and the Middle East.

Bush Agrees To 'Time Horizon'

Underscoring Baghdad's increasing assertiveness, al-Maliki and U.S. President George W. Bush agreed this week to set a "time horizon" for reducing American forces in Iraq.

It was the closest the Bush administration has come to acknowledging the need for a time frame for U.S. troop cuts. Bush has long opposed deadlines for troop withdrawals.

Brown's government, whose opinion poll ratings have slumped, is expected to make a statement to parliament on July 22 on Britain's future role in Iraq.

Britain announced last October it planned to cut troop numbers to 2,500 from around April this year, cutting back its involvement in a war that is unpopular with many Britons.

But it delayed the move after Shi'ite militias fiercely resisted an Iraqi crackdown in Al-Basrah province in late March.

Brown said key objectives that needed to be met for reducing troop numbers included training Iraqi forces, making sure Iraq could push forward with local elections expected this year and also in boosting development in Al-Basrah, the country's oil hub.

Brown was expected to hail falls in violence in Iraq, particularly in Al-Basrah, which was under the control of British troops until they handed over to Iraqi forces in December.

Analysts credit an increase in American troop levels and a more assertive stance by Iraq's security forces for reducing violence in Iraq to four-year lows.

Britain's army chief, Jock Stirrup, indicated on July 18 that major troop cuts in Iraq, where 176 British soldiers have been killed since 2003, would have to wait until next year.

The unpopularity of the Iraq war was a factor in Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair, stepping down early in June 2007.

Iraq has faded as an election issue in Britain, but Brown's opinion poll ratings have continued to slump, depressed by faltering growth, rising inflation, and sliding house prices.