MANCHESTER Britain has reached a turning point in Iraq, the defence secretary said on Monday, hinting that the remaining 4,000 British troops based there could be withdrawn soon.
"The Iraqi armed forces, supported by British and U.S. forces, have taken on and defeated the militia in Basra," Des Browne told the Labour Party's annual conference.
"We have reached a turning point in our involvement," he said, echoing Prime Minister Gordon Brown's statement in July that there would be a "fundamental change of mission" early next year, a phrase understood to mean a withdrawal of troops.
Browne described a "transformation in the quality of life" for Iraqis living in the south, saying cafes and restaurants had re-opened, women were able to walk the streets unveiled and investors were set to buy into the oil, gas and steel sectors.
"By any standard, this is a hugely important milestone," he said.
Britain has about 12,000 troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, a relatively high number for an army of less than 100,000. Military commanders are hoping that as troops are withdrawn from Iraq, numbers will be boosted in Afghanistan, where the 8,000-strong force is over-stretched.
Browne made no mention of troop redeployments. But immediately after detailing the successes he saw in Iraq, he laid out the huge challenges that remain in Afghanistan, saying Britain was there for the "longer haul".
"I have always been clear that while progress has been made, we still have a long uphill task," he said of Afghanistan.
"It is difficult and dangerous and it will take us years to achieve. The challenge of nation-building in Afghanistan is a long-term commitment and the terrorists will continue to try and prevent progress."
Britain's Afghanistan troops are part of a 53,000-strong NATO-led coalition. NATO defence ministers met in London last week to discuss the restraints on the coalition, which is undermanned and needs more aircraft and helicopters.
The United States, which has more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, a third of them under NATO, has pledged to send a further 4,000 early next year. But close ally Britain and other key NATO states have yet to make further troop commitments.
Browne hinted that more could ultimately be deployed.
"Sometimes it is simply not possible to avoid military intervention," he said. "Sometimes the defence of our national interest or the defence of the helpless demands it."
"We should not sign up to the responsibility to protect without signing up to the means to deliver that protection."
(Reporting by Luke Baker; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)