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UK says troops on track to end Iraq mission next year

LONDON, Oct 28 (Reuters) - British troops are on track to complete their “mission” in Iraq early next year, Defence Secretary John Hutton said on Tuesday, hinting that this should allow a substantial withdrawal of Britain’s 4,000 troops there.

“We’ve got two very finite and clear missions (in Iraq). They are progressing well and we hope in the early part of next year we can make some very significant decisions about UK force levels in Iraq,” Hutton told British legislators.

He said one mission -- training an Iraqi army division -- would be mostly completed early next year. He hoped the second task -- handing Basra airport to Iraqi authorities -- would be largely finished by the end of this year.

“Our mission I think is clear. It will be completed, I hope, in the early part of next year,” said Hutton, who was appointed defence minister this month.

“If the security environment were to deteriorate, then we would have to look very seriously at all of these issues, but at the moment we are on track,” he added.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in July he expected a “fundamental change of mission” for British troops in Iraq early next year, but Hutton’s comments were the government’s clearest signal that most of Britain’s force will come home next year.

In response to a question, Hutton agreed that British forces could be expected to have been substantially withdrawn from Basra in southern Iraq by mid-2010, the deadline for Prime Minister Gordon Brown to call a general election.

Britain sent 45,000 troops to participate in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s strong support for the war cost his Labour Party support.

Brown, who took over from Blair in June last year, has reduced British troop levels in Iraq and bringing most of the remaining troops home could give him a boost at the next election. Labour currently lags in the polls.

Both U.S. presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, support sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to counter an increase in violence by Taliban guerrillas.

Hutton said Britain welcomed the U.S. commitment but said London had not yet received any formal request to add to its force there.

Britain has 8,100 troops in Afghanistan, mostly based in Helmand province in the south where they have been locked in heavy fighting with the Taliban.

“We are pulling our weight in Afghanistan... We’ve always said there has to be the broadest possible burden-sharing across the NATO allies,” Hutton said.

“If I received advice that we need to deploy further UK troops to Afghanistan, obviously that is advice I would take very, very seriously indeed,” he added.

He said that if it became possible to transfer Merlin helicopters being used in Iraq to British forces in Afghanistan “that would be a very useful force addition.” (Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Sami Aboudi)