Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain said yesterday that British forces will depart Iraq by the end of July, leaving the United States as the only major foreign military presence in the country.
Meanwhile, a plan described to President-elect Barack Obama fails to meet the 16-month timetable Obama outlined during his election campaign, U.S. military officials said yesterday.
The plan was proposed by the top American commanders responsible for Iraq, Gens. David Petraeus and Ray Odierno, and it represents their first recommendation on troop withdrawals under an Obama presidency. While Obama has said he will seek advice from his commanders, their resistance to a faster drawdown could present the new president with a tough political choice between overruling his generals or backing away from his goal.
The plan, completed last week, envisions withdrawing two more brigades, or about 7,000 to 8,000 troops, from Iraq in the first six months of 2009, the military officials said. But that would leave 12 combat brigades in Iraq by June 2009 and, while declining to be more specific, the officials made clear that the withdrawal of all combat forces under the generals' recommendations would not come until after May 2010, Obama's target.
Britain's withdrawal of its remaining 4,100 troops had long been expected. British forces will cease operations by May 31 to begin the departure. In the future, the British military might still send soldiers to train Iraqi forces if the Iraqi government requests them.
At least 178 British troops have died in Iraq since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion, which has grown increasingly unpopular in Britain and became a liability to the governing Labor Party under Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair.
When Brown became prime minister in 2007, he made clear that he planned to greatly reduce the British presence in Iraq. His initial plan, to bring the British troop strength down to about 2,500 by the end of last year and to withdraw completely by the end of 2008, stalled after an Iraqi army offensive prompted major clashes with Shiite Muslim militias in the spring in the southern city of Basra, where the British contingent is based.
Since then, southern Iraq has quieted down again, and Iraqi police and soldiers are patrolling the crucial region, home to strategic oil reserves and the country's sole ports.
Brown and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said at a news conference during Brown's unannounced visit that violence has fallen in the south and that Iraqi security forces are better equipped to stand on their own.
Brown's visit came a day after Iraq's Cabinet forwarded a resolution outlining the withdrawal timetable. Brown urged Iraq's national parliament to approve the pact.
It is similar to the Status of Forces Agreement governing the U.S. troop presence that was approved by parliament Nov. 27. It takes effect Jan. 1 and replaces the United Nations mandate that oversees the role of foreign forces in Iraq.
The pact governing the British operation also includes about 500 troops from Australia, Romania, Estonia and El Salvador. It is not clear whether the remaining forces would adhere to the July 31 deadline. Missions ended yesterday for troops from Lithuania, and soldiers from Albania were leaving at the end of the week.
The U.S.-led operations in Iraq once included forces from at least 39 countries, with a very small number contributing more than 1,000 soldiers and some offering fewer than 100. Major contributors such as Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, Italy, South Korea and Spain withdrew their combat forces over time since 2003.
In the past year, British troops had rarely ventured into Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, and confined themselves to a base on the outskirts of the city. During the Iraqi government offensive, it was U.S. troops, not the British ones, who played the leading role in providing air and ground support.
The New York Times contributed to this article.