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UK halts troop cuts after Iraq clashes

  • Story Highlights
  • UK defense minister says number of British troops in Iraq to stay at 4,000
  • Des Browne said "prudent" to halt cuts amid violence in Basra over last week
  • UK troops, which were based in Basra, handed security to Iraqi troops in 2007
  • Britain had hoped to draw down troops to 2,500 by this spring
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- The British defense minister on Tuesday said the number of British troops in Iraq will remain at the current level of around 4,000 for the time being.

Des Browne, briefing the House of Commons, said it would be "prudent" to halt any further reductions, particularly in light of the violence in Basra over the last week.

That was when Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki launched an offensive against "outlaws" and "criminals" in the city, and clashes broke out between troops and Shiite militants.

The fighting, which involved Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia, spread to other southern Shiite cities and Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad and left hundreds dead. Video Watch as Iran works to bring Iraq cease-fire »

The fighting subsided after Iraqi Shiite lawmakers, Iranian officials and al-Sadr held talks and al-Sadr on Sunday urged his followers to stand down. But the operation is ongoing.

"Before the events of the last week, the emerging military advice, based on our assessment of current conditions, was that further reductions might not be possible at the rate envisaged in the October announcement -- although it remains our clear direction of travel," Browne said.

"In the light of the last week's events, however, it is prudent that we pause any further reductions while the current situation is unfolding. It is absolutely right that military commanders review plans when the conditions on the ground change."

British troops, which have been based in Basra, handed security control to Iraqi troops and police late last year. It had been the last province under British control in Iraq to transfer to local security.

At that time, Britain had hoped to draw down troops to 2,500 by this spring, a move that would have been dependent on conditions on the ground.

The defense minister explained that the role of British troops since the security transfer has been security overwatch and called their task a "vital and necessary job." It includes training and mentoring Iraqi troops, providing "fast jet support and surveillance" and helping with reconstruction.

Browne said Iraqis need British support in the coming months because of the current problems in the Basra region, which he described as "criminality" and blamed them on "militia elements which act outside the law and are unwilling to embrace democratic politics." He also mentioned the influence and activity of Iranian elements in southern Iraq.

Browne said he learned of the central government's plan to deal with security in Basra three weeks ago in meetings. He said al-Maliki "formally announced his intention to accelerate the implementation of the plan at a meeting" on March 23. U.S. and British senior officials were at those talks.

He said the operation begun last Tuesday -- dubbed Charge of the Knights -- is an offensive reflecting the government's security responsibilities.

The offensive, which includes cordon and strike operations, wasn't likely to "produce immediate success" but is still "making steady progress in achieving its aims of ensuring respect for the rule of law by all parties and factions."

He said al-Sadr's call for a cease-fire to his Mehdi Army militia also reflects such progress.

"Since last Tuesday, the Iraqi Security Forces have been conducting cordon and strike operations against criminal elements across Basra, supported by efforts to encourage militias to give up their medium and heavy weapons," he said.

Browne said Iraq has been targeting entities that include al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia and not just that group.

"It is too early to give a definitive or detailed assessment of how the operation has gone overall -- and it would be quite wrong to seek to do so while the Iraqi security forces continue to conduct their operations in Basra and elsewhere. The situation remains fluid, although levels of fighting in Basra have reduced since the weekend," he said.

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He said security forces have "dealt successfully" with the violence in other southern provinces and Baghdad, where the fighting is now subsiding.

British forces are aiding the Iraqi security forces by providing surveillance, air support, logistical support and medical care, Browne said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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