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No decision to reduce forces, Blair's office says

LONDON -- Britain has not decided to withdraw troops from Iraq, although contingency planning is underway, Prime Minister Tony Blair's office said yesterday.

A leaked government memorandum shows Britain is considering scaling back its troop presence from 8,500 to 3,000 by the middle of 2006, saving nearly $1 billion annually.

The memo, marked ''Secret -- UK Eyes Only," and signed by Britain's Defense Secretary John Reid, also says there is a ''strong US military desire for significant force reductions."

''Emerging US plans assume that 14 out of 18 provinces could be handed over to Iraqi control by early 2006," which would see the multinational force cut from 176,000 to 66,000.

British officials confirmed the authenticity of the document, first published by The Mail on Sunday newspaper.

Blair's official spokesman, who speaks on customary condition of anonymity because he is a civil servant, said the memo merely confirms the government's long-standing plan to train Iraqi forces and gradually hand over security responsibility.

Blair has faced repeated calls from political opponents to set a timetable for withdrawing British troops from Iraq.

London and Washington are reluctant to do so, fearing such a move would give heart to militants waging a bloody insurgency in Iraq.

Bryan Whitman, a senior Pentagon spokesman, declined to comment directly on the memo yesterday.

He noted that US officials have said for months that their goal is to begin reductions in 2006 if conditions permit.

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