The killing of Iraqi recruits on Sunday came on the day a British newspaper published a leaked defence ministry document discussing plans to drastically reduce the number of coalition troops and replace them with Iraqis.
The Mail on Sunday said Washington hoped to hand over control of security to Iraqi forces in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces by early next year, allowing it to slash US-led troop levels from 176,000 to 66,000.
Britain, for its part, was considering cutting its 8,500-strong contingent
“This is but one of a number of papers produced over recent months covering various possible scenarios,” a defence ministry spokeswoman told news service AFP.
Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Richard Alston, has refused to rule out a report claiming Britain wants Australia to take over its military command in southern Iraq.
According to the report in British newspaper the Sunday Times, Britain wants to reduce its troops in Iraq by early 2006 as it prepares to take over command of the NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The report says the government has asked Australia to take over command of Britain’s operations in Basra, which would require up to 300 more Australian defence personnel in Iraq.
While Mr Alston played down the report, he hinted there could be discussions about Australia’s role in southern Iraq in the future.
“Clearly we’ve been assuming a fairly important role in Al Muthanna, the southern most province, and no doubt the British government would be keen to have us further involved, but at this
point in time there hasn’t been any reconsideration.
“The troop deployment will be in place for six months and then there will be a review and that’s probably the appropriate time to make those sorts of judgements.
“But, ultimately of course it’s a matter for formal requests from one government to another, and then for the Australian government to respond, but at this point in time there haven’t been those active discussions.”
Australia already has 450 troops in Al-Muthanna and Baghdad, while Britain has around 2000 in southern Iraq.
Prime Minister John Howard is expected to consider Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan this week and will discuss the matter with his British counterpart Tony Blair when they meet in London later this month.
Meanwhile in the deadliest of the seven weekend attacks in Iraq, a bomber blew himself up outside an army recruitment centre at Baghdad’s Muthana airfield, killing 19 people and wounding 41.
The bombing was later claimed in an Internet statement posted in the name of the al-Qaeda-linked group of Iraq’s most wanted man, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Several would-be recruits who escaped the blast remained outside the base a couple of hours after the attack, still waiting to join up.
Because of high unemployment, tens of thousands of young men have been volunteering to join the security forces and many have fallen victim to bombers.