Gates: British drawdown in Iraq due to improved conditions

LONDON — U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his British counterpart Thursday defended Britain's decision to pull half of its troops out of Iraq, saying that it was due to improved conditions in Iraq, not mounting domestic political pressures.

The U.S. and Britain share "exactly the same aspirations for Iraq," said Des Browne, the British defense secretary after the two men met in London.

At the same time, Browne called for an increase in international forces in Afghanistan, which he called "a long-term commitment." But he stopped short of saying the 2,500 British troops set to leave southern Iraq by the end of the year would be sent to Afghanistan.

During a meeting in London, both men stressed that Britain and the United States agreed on the drawdown on the grounds that significant progress had been made in the south, where the bulk of British troops are stationed. Gates said the drawdown "was closely coordinated" with Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq.

A senior Pentagon official said that the situation in southern Iraq had improved so much that more coalition troops could draw down, including some of the 500 Australian troops in the south.

In actual fact, fighting is increasing between rival Shiite factions for control of the oil-rich section of the country. Governors were assassinated in the southern al Muthanna and Diwaniyah provinces this past summer, and many suspect their deaths were tied to the fight for control of Iraq's southern provinces.

Among Britons, there is growing dismay over the war in Iraq. Indeed, Prime Minister Tony Blair's commitment to support the U.S. led war in Iraq defined the end phase of his decade-long tenure in June.

By drawing down troops in Iraq, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Blair's successor, quickly distanced himself from Blair.

Britain currently has roughly 5,000 troops in Iraq, the second-highest commitment behind the U.S.'s nearly 170,000 troops.

In announcing the drawdown earlier this week, Brown said the remaining troops would focus on training Iraqi forces and backing them up when needed. He said the remaining troops could be out by the end of next year.

This was Gates' second visit to Britain since becoming secretary of defense nearly a year ago.

Gates also said that a news report of a Marine proposal to move troops from Iraq to Afghanistan was "extremely preliminary." The report, which first appeared in the New York Times, said that the Marines wants to move its troops out of western Iraq and toward Afghanistan, saying they are better apt to fight in that conflict.

Gates also strongly opposed legislation that would brand the World War I massacre of Armenians genocide, which Turkey opposes. The secretary said the U.S. military depends on Turkey to transport fuel, cargo and armored vehicles to Iraq. Turkey could stop that support, the secretary suggested, if the law passes.

Gates said the Congress should consider the "enormous present-day implications."

After meeting Browne and Brown, Gates was flying to Moscow Thursday afternoon to participate in a rare joint visit with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. They will tackle a growing arms dispute that has cooled U.S.-Russians relations to Cold War levels.

Over strong Russian objections, the Bush administration is seeking to deploy U.S. missile defenses in Eastern Europe to protect the U.S. and its European allies against a possible Iranian nuclear strike - should Iran acquire nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them.