Wednesday, January 24, 2007

U.S. Iraq envoy wants British troops to stay on

LONDON, Jan 24 (Reuters) - The U.S. ambassador to Iraq said on Wednesday he would like British troops to stay in the country, even as pressure mounts on Prime Minister Tony Blair to reduce Britain's deployment in the south.

"We are committed to the increase of the force," Zalmay Khalilzad told BBC News in an interview, referring to the planned expansion of U.S. troops on the ground.

"The Brits obviously are not committed to the increasing of the force but there are various reports about further drawdowns," Khalizad said.

Asked whether he would prefer British troop numbers to remain at about 7,100 in southern Iraq, the ambassador replied: "We would like the British to co-ordinate and for us to have a joint plan. We are talking about this.

"It is clear what our preference would be -- the longer we stay together here the better."

A spokesman at Blair's Downing Street office insisted that U.S. and British strategy remained co-ordinated.

"We will leave southern Iraq in negotiation with coalition partners and the government of Iraq when all three of us have decided the time is right and the conditions are right," he said.

Earlier on Wednesday, Blair said it would be "deeply irresponsible" to set an arbitrary deadline for pulling British forces out of Iraq. But the prime minister is under pressure to set such a date before he steps down later this year.

Government officials say British operations aimed at preparing for the handover of security in the southern province of Basra to Iraqi authorities could be wound up in February.

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