LONDON -- Thousands of British soldiers will leave Iraq over the next year, significantly downgrading the country's commitment in the region, the defense secretary said yesterday. Poland and Italy also announced the impending withdrawal of their remaining troops.
The reduction of British troops will occur as control of two southern provinces is transferred to Iraqi forces, although Defense Secretary Des Browne insisted that "handover does not mean withdrawal."
"Even when all the provinces are handed over, we will still be providing a force to mentor and back up the Iraqi Army and police, and to protect coalition supply routes," he said. "But I can tell you that by the end of next year I expect numbers of British forces in Iraq to be significantly lower -- by a matter of thousands."
Britain has more than 7,000 British troops in Iraq, primarily in the south; At the height of the conflict, there were about 46,000. Browne said the British military presence in Iraq would be determined by officials in London and Baghdad.
Also yesterday, President Lech Kaczynski of Poland said his country, a US ally in Iraq and Afghanistan, would pull its remaining 900 soldiers out of Iraq by the end of 2007.
And Prime Minister Romano Prodi of Italy said the last Italian soldiers in Iraq -- some 60 to 70 troops -- will return home this week, ending the Italian contingent's presence in the south of the country after more than three years.
In a speech to the Royal Institute of International Affairs, a foreign policy think tank, Browne warned Iran that it faces increasing isolation if it does not use its influence in Iraq constructively, but he spared Syria from similar criticism.
"Its foreign minister -- the first senior-ranking Syrian official to visit Iraq since Saddam Hussein's fall -- has reestablished diplomatic ties and stated that Damascus is ready to engage in dialogue, and work for stability in Iraq and the region," he said. "But, as ever, we need to see actions to match the words."
Browne, singling out Iran, said the Islamic republic's support of insurgents is unacceptable and counterproductive.
"Iran must start seeing Iraq not as a tool in a wider confrontation with the West, but as a vital interest in its own right," Browne said. "Iran's interest is in a stable, non-aggressive Iraq. So the message to Iran is simple; be a constructive partner, help yourself as well as the wider region, or face increasing isolation."
Last week, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said Britain may be able to hand over security responsibility in the southern port city of Basra by next spring. Britain also hopes to hand security control over to the Iraqis in the province of Maysan, on the Iranian border, in January.