Goodbye, Mr. Blair?

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British combat forces in Iraq (estimated at 5,000 troops) may be reduced by a third between now and the end of October, London's The Observer is reporting today:

The forthcoming 'drawdown' of British troops in Basra has not been made public and is likely to provoke consternation in both Washington and Baghdad. Many in Iraq argue that more, not fewer, troops are needed. Last week British troops in Basra fought fierce battles with Shia militia groups.

The reduction will take place when the First Mechanised Infantry Brigade is replaced by the Fourth Armoured Division, now based in Germany, in a routine rotation over the next few weeks.

Troop numbers are being finalised, but, military sources in Iraq and in Whitehall say, they are likely to be 'substantially less' than the current total in Basra: the new combat brigade will have five or even four battle groups, against its current strength of six battle groups of around 800 men.

A military spokesman in Basra confirmed the scaling back of the British commitment.

That will come at a particularly sensitive moment for the U.S., since according to the New York Times today, American forces may begin trying to regain control over cities in the Sunni triangle by perhaps as early as November. The possibility that Muqtada al-Sadr's partisans in southern Iraq, including Basra, might use this period to strengthen their hand before elections scheduled for January cannot at all be ruled out.

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