BAGHDAD -- British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced plans yesterday to pull 1,000 troops from Iraq by Christmas, saying Iraqi authorities were ready to take responsibility for security in Basra, the last province under British control, within two months.
Brown's announcement came at a time of deepening disenchantment with the war in Britain, which has about 5,500 remaining troops here, compared with 44,000 in 2003. The departing troops would include 500 already slated to go home after withdrawing last month from the last British base in Basra's city center to an air base on its outskirts. About 270 of them have left.
While the prospect of further withdrawals probably will bolster Brown's standing at home, there is concern here that it could leave key U.S. supply routes north from Kuwait vulnerable and could embolden an array of tribal, political and militia factions engaged in sometimes murderous rivalry in southern Iraq.
Brown said he believed the 13,000 Iraqi soldiers and 15,000 police in Basra, a hub for Iraq's lucrative oil exports, are capable of handling security functions. Britain has handed over security responsibilities in three other southern provinces to the Iraqi government.
"I believe that as we move to over-watch, as the Iraqis with [nearly] 30,000 of their own security forces take responsibility, we can move down to four and a half thousand," Brown told reporters during his surprise visit to Iraq, his first as prime minister. "That releases a thousand of our troops, and hopefully they will be home by Christmas."
But he added, "The final decisions will be taken based on what happens on the ground."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said yesterday that his forces were ready to take charge.
"Basra will be among the provinces falling under the jurisdiction of Iraqi security forces," he told reporters after meeting with Brown inside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone.
Brown also consulted with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus and leading Iraqi politicians before continuing to Basra to meet with British, Australian and U.S. troops.
Brown, who succeeded Prime Minister Tony Blair three months ago under heavy pressure to end Britain's involvement in the Iraq war, made his announcement during a week of political turmoil at home.
London is abuzz with speculation that Brown might call a snap general election next month to capitalize on the Labor Party's sudden surge in popularity. He declined to comment yesterday on his intentions .
The announcement of further troop withdrawals came in the middle of the opposition Conservative Party's annual conference in Britain, at which Conservative leaders immediately criticized the prime minister for failing to wait to discuss troop withdrawals until Parliament reconvenes next week.
British forces will continue to patrol the border with Iran, but the focus of their operations will shift from combat to providing backup and training to the Iraqi forces, said Lt. Col. Nick Goulding, a British military spokesman.
Petraeus, the top U.S. general in Iraq, said the withdrawal of 1,000 British forces was "actually quite doable."
In other developments in Iraq, police said a suicide car bomber killed six people and injured 10 outside a police station in Ghasan, a village northwest of the Diyala provincial capital of Baqouba. The bomber appeared to be targeting the police station but could not get past blast barriers and detonated his payload at a checkpoint, police said.
At least four more people were killed and 17 injured in five separate bombings in Baghdad, police said. The bodies of nine men shot execution-style were also recovered in the capital. Police found two more bodies with burn marks near Kirkuk, north of the capital.
U.S.-led forces killed one suspected insurgent and captured at least 10 others during raids targeting Sunni militants in central and northern Iraq, the military said.
Alexandra Zavis writes for the Los Angeles Times.