First UK troops to leave Iraq 'within weeks'
TONY Blair will use the restoration of a democratic government in Iraq to activate a pull-out programme that could see UK troops start to withdraw within weeks.
Although Iraq remains convulsed by violence and under constant threat of civil war, Blair and US President George Bush will this week thrash out the final details of their plan to leave Iraq.
And in another development certain to put strain on the coalition, the Italian government revealed it would begin talks this week to discuss the withdrawal of its own forces. Sources claimed as many as 1,000 of the 2,600 Italian troops in Iraq could leave by next month.
Blair is expected to begin a round of shuttle diplomacy in the next few days, culminating in a summit in Washington at which the demand to begin the long-delayed draw-down of forces will top the agenda.
Blair and Bush will base their handover plans on a secret agreement worked out earlier this year, which should have seen the first 2,000 British soldiers begin leaving Iraq this month.
But the poor security situation in the country has forced them to redraw the blueprint, and aim to hit the 2,000 target - a quarter of the UK presence in Iraq - by the end of the year, starting as early as next month.
In the meantime, the army hopes to return its remaining soldiers to barracks - on a province-by-province basis - as Iraq's own military and police begin to assume full responsibility for security in the British zone.
"This is a critical moment," Blair said yesterday, after the government, led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, was finally sworn in. "Now we have got a government for the first time that is one of genuine national unity."
But, in a sign of the Coalition's hope that the landmark move would free their own hands, he added: "The question now is can they then make their writ run throughout the country and get to the point where Iraq can potentially take control of its own destiny?"
Japanese and Australian officials have also begun dropping heavy hints about plans to begin withdrawing their own forces from Iraq over the summer.
Sources at the Ministry of Defence last night insisted that the accelerated preparations for the final exit strategy were not a "panic measure", but a planned response to the establishment of a democratic government in Baghdad.
But Air Marshal Sir Tim Garden, a Liberal Democrat peer and former assistant chief of defence staff, warned that a quick exit should not mean Iraq is abandoned to its fate as its new leaders struggle to control widespread sectarian violence.
He said: "If we withdraw just because after five months they have managed to cobble together a government, you could really only characterise that as cutting and running. The tremendous problem with this is that decision-making over Iraq isn't in the hands of the British government and it probably isn't really with the American government. I think the fate of our forces lies more with what the Pentagon wants to do."
Despite the hopeful statements made by Blair and members of the new government, the chaos on the streets of Iraq's cities remains deadly, with reports suggesting one person is killed on the streets of Basra - the centre of the British zone - every hour. The political deadlock between Shia, Sunni and Kurdish representatives has been reflected to lethal effect in terrorist attacks and faction-fighting. Two UK soldiers were injured in a roadside bombing north-west of the city yesterday, while in Baghdad a bomb killed 19 people in a crowd of Shi'ite labourers.
One British military official warned that it would take at least six months to determine whether the Iraqi forces could be trusted to keep order.
But the new prime minister has yet to decide which would-be ministers will handle the security and defence portfolios.
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