UK to halve its Iraq force to 2,500 troops

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LONDON, Oct 8 (Reuters) Britain will halve its force in Iraq to 2,500 troops from spring next year, after handing over responsibility for the southern province of Basra to Iraqi security forces, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said today.

In his first major foreign policy speech to parliament, Brown also announced plans to allow Iraqis who have worked for British troops to apply for funds to resettle in Britain, Iraq or other countries in the region.

Brown announced during a visit to Iraq last week that 500 more soldiers would be home from the unpopular war in Iraq by year's end. The force had already been due to fall from 5,500 to 5,000, and will now fall to 2,500 from spring next year.

Brown, who took over from Tony Blair as prime minister in June, had been widely expected to speed up the withdrawal of British troops after voters' dismay at the war sent Blair's popularity plummeting and hastened his departure from office.

The announcement marks a turning point in southern Iraq, where there will no longer be a major presence of international forces patrolling the street.

However, Brown told parliament, Britain's ''overwatch'' role would still mean British troops had ''a capacity to operate supply lines and look at the border issues''.

''That means we are in a position to support Iraqi troops but also to re-intervene,'' he said.

Britain had sent 45,000 troops to Iraq during the US-led invasion in 2003 as Washington's main ally and had maintained around 7,000 to 8,000 troops for most of the past four years in the mainly Shi'ite area that produces most of Iraq's oil wealth.

Brown also today said that Britain would order 140 more Mastiff patrol vehicles, which provide protection against mines and roadside bombs, for British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Labour government has been subjected to persistent criticism that British soldiers operating overseas have not been provided with adequate equipment.

As Britain has withdrawn from bases in Iraq, the treatment of interpreters who work for British troops has been an issue in Britain after several were hunted down and murdered by militants.

In the past they were not given asylum in Britain, but Brown ordered a review of that policy in August.

''Existing staff who have been employed by us for more than 12 months and have completed their work will be able to apply for a package of financial payments to aid resettlement in Iraq or elsewhere in the region or in agreed circumstances for admission to the UK,'' he said.

Reuters SI RS2207

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