» Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Troop Numbers

Asked that the Defence Secretary last month had said, when giving evidence to the Joint Session on Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee that he expected this year to be able to withdraw British troops by ‘a matter of thousands’, if that was still the expectation, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that the situation was precisely as the Prime Minister set out this afternoon in his statement to the House of Commons, which was that we would reduce down from 7,100 to 5,500 by the summer. We then hoped to go below 5,000 figure but that would depend on the conditions on the ground.

Asked if the Prime Minister would give a definite answer if the change in numbers meant troop redeployment in the region or something else, the PMOS said in terms of operational detail it was a matter for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to announce when it is ready to announce it.

Put to the PMOS that even if the numbers went below 5,000 that would still not beas large a number as suggested by the Defence Secretary, the PMOS said that the basis on which we have always indicated for any move is the conditions on the ground. We have indicated precisely the position between now and summer but we have also indicated that what happens after that depends on the conditions and that is what the situation is. We are saying the reason we are able to do this is because Iraqis are taking over responsibility for guard duties but also the patrolling in Basra itself. That means there is less need for our troops to do those kinds of operations. What we do have to do however is retain the combat capability to support the Iraqis, that is why the troops are still there.

Asked if the notion that British troops would remain in Iraq to protect coalition supply routes meant that as long as the US were there Britain would retain a presence as well, the PMOS said that the Prime Minister had set out the role of the troops, training and supporting the Iraqi troops, protecting the border with Iran and protecting supply routes. That is what the priorities are at this stage. He added that he would not get into hypotheticals beyond what the Prime Minister had said. Again asked on the inference that as long as the US were in Iraq Britain would retain a presence as well, the PMOS said people had learned to live with the fact that people draw all sorts of inferences, but inferences for the PMOS were just code for a hypothetical question.

Asked if it was correct that in the provinces the British had already withdrawn from there were also plans to withdraw from borders as well meaning that we would only patrol border areas where we had a presence or would the total border remain under British troops, the PMOS said that the question was fair but for certainty it would be best to check with the MoD, but in terms of the border with Iran obviously that remains a concern, particularly as the Prime Minister confirmed again today we still believe that there are Iranian supplied ordnance coming across which is used, not least to attack our own forces.

Asked if the US stayed longer than us would the protection of the borders still be part of the British brief, the PMOS asked not to get into hypotheticals but stick with reality.

Asked if the Prime Minister had consulted with the Arab allies in the south of Iraq, the PMOS said that clearly the first people consulted were the democratically elected government of Iraq and in terms of other allies, those who need to know know.

Referring to a statement made by Senator Kennedy that this was the first sign of a split with President Bush, the PMOS was asked ig there was any concern about the message being sent to America, the PMOS referred the reporter simply to what the Prime Minister actually said in the debate, which was we work very closely with the US, that the situation as we have always said, in Baghdad and Basra is different, that we recognise the reasons and support the reasons why the US is doing what it is doing in Baghdad, because that is were 80 to 90 percent of all the violence takes place. The situation in Baghdad is that they are now doing there what we have been doing in Basra in Operation Sinbad, which is going in district by district, taking on the terrorists, putting in reconstruction and working to secure those areas so the Iraqis can then take over. There is a synthesis in terms of the strategies that the coalition are adopting both in Baghdad and Basra.

Asked if we thought the Iranian government knew about the weapons coming in from Iran, the PMOS said that we could not know for sure who is authorising the movement of weapons but we believe if the Iranian government wanted to stop this happening it could. Asked again the same question the PMOS said that the Iranians knew as the Prime Minister mentioned it at Hampton Court in October 2005, and the Iranian government have had plenty of time to stop the weapons and we can’t see anything to suggest that it has.

Briefing took place at 15:00 | Search for related news

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