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Timetable on British troops expected

1,500 could leave in weeks, the BBC says

LONDON -- Prime Minister Tony Blair will announce today a new timetable for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq, with 1,500 to return home in several weeks, the BBC reported.

Blair will also tell the House of Commons during his regular weekly appearance before it that a total of about 3,000 British soldiers will have left southern Iraq by the end of 2007, if the security there is sufficient, the BBC said, quoting government officials who weren't further identified.

The BBC said Blair was not expected to say when the rest of Britain's forces would leave Iraq. Currently, Britain has about 7,100 soldiers there.

Britain has long been the most important coalition member in Iraq after the United States. But Blair knows the British public and politicians from his own Labour Party want the troops out as soon as possible, and don't want to see Britain stick with the United States in Iraq for the long haul.

Militarily, a British withdrawal isn't likely to have much effect on the stepped-up US operation in Baghdad or the war with the Sunnis in Anbar province west of the Iraqi capital. However, Iraqi forces could have a tough time maintaining security in mostly Shi'ite southern Iraq, including Basra city.

Blair's Downing Street office refused to issue a comment on the BBC report, which also said Blair would tell the Commons that if the situation worsens on the ground on Iraq, his new game plan could change.

The announcement comes even as President Bush implements an increase of 21,000 more troops for Iraq.

Blair and Bush talked by secure video link yesterday morning, and Bush views Britain's troop cutbacks as "a sign of success" in Iraq, said US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

Meanwhile, the bloodshed continued. A hidden bomb ripped through a tanker carrying chlorine gas, killing nine people and filling hospital beds with more than 150 wheezing and frightened villagers after noxious plumes covered homes and schools north of Baghdad.

The attack was part of a string of blasts -- including a suicide bomber who killed seven mourners at a funeral -- that further rattled officials marking the first week of a security crackdown seeking to calm the blood-soaked city. US forces, meanwhile, called in airstrikes during intense clashes against insurgents in strongholds northwest of Baghdad.

With the death toll in the Baghdad area climbing above 100 since Sunday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki tried to court some rare upbeat publicity with an even rarer event -- leaving his heavily guarded quarters for a visit to the city's streets and markets.

The fanfare of the security plan's launch Feb. 14 has been swept aside by a steady roll of attacks, most blamed on Sunni extremists targeting the majority Shi'ites. Many Sunnis believe they are being sidelined by Maliki's government .

The bombing of the tanker took place near Taji, 12 miles northwest of Baghdad. A military spokesman, Brigadier General Qassim Moussawi, said a bomb was planted under the tanker, but it was not known whether it had a timer or was remotely detonated. His remarks contradicted earlier reports that a roadside bomb blew up the truck.

Hospitals were soon flooded with terrified people -- including many children -- complaining of breathing problems, vomiting, and stinging eyes. Most of the people treated were released hours later and there were no apparent life-threatening cases, hospital officials said.

Chlorine gas in low exposure irritates the respiratory system, eyes, and skin. Higher levels can lead to accumulation of fluid in the lungs and other symptoms, and death is possible with heavy exposure, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Authorities were left questioning whether the bombing could signal a new tactic by militants to try to spread greater panic with chemical fallout.

The attacks in the capital began during the busy morning rush for goods and fuel.

A car rigged with explosives tore through a line of vehicles at a gas station in the Sadiyah district in southwestern Baghdad. At least six people were killed and 14 wounded, police said. The neighborhood is mixed between Shiites and a Sunni minority.