Troop pull-out from Iraq to be speeded up
Handover to local security forces will begin in July, Blair says in Baghdad
George Bush and Tony Blair are to discuss in Washington this week a programme of troop withdrawals from Iraq that will be much faster and more ambitious than originally planned.
In a phased pullout in which the two countries will act in tandem, Britain is to begin with a handover to Iraqi security forces in Muthanna province in July and the Americans will follow suit in Najaf, the Shia holy city.
Other withdrawals will quickly follow over the remainder of the year. Officials in both administrations hope that Britain's 8,000 forces in Iraq can be down to 5,000 by the end of the year and that the American forces will be reduced from 133,000 to about 100,000.
Yesterday Nuri al-Maliki, the new Iraqi prime minister, told a joint press conference with Mr Blair in Baghdad that Iraqi forces could take over from the US-led coalition in 16 of the country's 18 provinces by the end of the year.
Mr Blair and Mr Maliki said the "process of transition" would start in some provinces in the coming months, and that "by the end of this year responsibility for much of Iraq's territorial security should have been transferred to Iraqi control".
Mr Blair, in his fifth visit to Iraq since the invasion, flew to Baghdad to become the first leader to greet the new Iraqi government, which was inaugurated on Saturday. Mr Blair is investing his hopes of salvaging his legacy in the new Iraqi prime minister and described the government as "a new beginning" after three years of hard struggle.
President Bush echoed him yesterday, saying that the new government was "the beginning of something new constitutional democracy at the heart of the Middle East". Mr Bush acknowledged that there had been mistakes in Iraq, but said repeatedly that there had been "incremental" progress.
Mr Maliki surprised Mr Blair's team at the press conference by saying the UK handover to Iraqi forces could begin in June. British officials later corrected this, saying that the planned date was actually July.
Mr Blair preferred not to put an explicit timetable on it, saying that such a move depended on conditions on the ground, and the government's most optimistic public timetable has Iraq taking full control of security within a four-year period. But a joint statement issued by Mr Blair and Mr Maliki acknowledged their agreement to make an early start.
The statement said the new Iraqi government would "in the weeks ahead work with the MNF [multinational force] on the details of transition to Iraqi control".
Britain has responsibility for four provinces in Iraq. After Muthanna, the next province for handover to Iraqi forces by Britain is Maysan. But Basra, where most of the 7,200 British forces are stationed, is - the two prime ministers admitted yesterday - a serious problem, and the new government is to send a delegation there soon.
The fate of Dhi Qar, which is in the British sector but is run in effect by 2,600 Italian forces, is uncertain, since the new Italian prime minister, Romano Prodi, says he wants a speedy withdrawal.
Mr Maliki denied that the country was in the midst of a civil war. "The multinational forces did let us improve the capability of our forces but the Iraqi forces still need more," he told reporters. "Iraq's forces still need more backing, more training and more armaments in order for the Iraq security forces to take over the security fully. We will start in the provinces and we will do them in turn."
His total of 263,000 Iraqi police and army is still short of the 325,000 target, although this is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
Mr Blair stayed overnight in Kuwait and then travelled into Baghdad's high-security green zone by Chinook helicopter. After meeting the prime minister, Mr Blair saw the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, who hailed him as "a great friend to the people of Iraq".
The British prime minister said after the meeting: "What we want to see is a sovereign independent nation in theory and in practice."
Mr Blair's official spokesman denied that talk of a "new beginning" offered a hostage to fortune, arguing that a cabinet formed from Shia, Sunni and Kurd leaders after a successful election involving more than 12 million people was proof of the significance of the weekend's landmark cabinet settlement. But both Mr Blair and Mr Bush risk the remark rebounding on them severely as Sunni and Shia insurgents continue to bomb the multinational force - and themselves.
"Troop withdrawal comes after the process of Iraqi-isation, not the other way round," the prime minister's spokesman said. The Americans have drafted in a further 650 forces from Kuwait to help "stabilise", amid fear of violence after the formation of the new cabinet.
A senior British official predicted that a full handover of security could be achieved within the four-year term of the new Iraqi government. "The aim is to take Iraq to a position where the multinational force is able to withdraw during its [the new government's] period in office," said the official, who was accompanying Mr Blair into Baghdad.
"During the four years, the present role and structure of the multinational force will change and come to an end."