The Iraqi cabinet has finally approved a hard-fought security pact with the US under which all American troops are to withdraw from Iraq in three years, putting an end to the US-led occupation of Iraq that has defined America's relations with the rest of the world since the 2003 invasion.
However, the security arrangement, which was negotiated for months, must still be ratified by the fractured Iraqi parliament today, and only then will it clear its final hurdle. The deal with the US raises expectations that Britain is on the point of agreeing a similar pact on the withdrawal of its 4,100 troops from southern Iraq.
"The total withdrawal will be completed by 31 December 2011. This is not governed by circumstances on the ground. This date is specific and final," said Ali al-Dabbagh, an Iraqi cabinet spokesman, after the meeting at which nine cabinet members failed to turn up.
Iraq's national security adviser was quoted as saying on Friday that British troops would leave by the end of next year. But the Ministry of Defence insisted yesterday there were "no further announcements" on troop levels after the Prime Minister set out the Government's position in July. Gordon Brown said then that he would expect a "further fundamental change of mission in the first months of 2009" after British soldiers moved from a combat role to "overwatch".
But Britain, like Washington, is keen to conclude its "status of forces" agreement with the Iraqi government before the end of next month, when the current UN mandate conferring international legality on the foreign military presence expires.
Speaking at a UN Security Council meeting on Iraq last Friday, the British ambassador, Sir John Sawers, hinted that a pullout could be close. He noted that at present British forces were focused on two remaining commitments, training and mentoring the 14th Division of the Iraqi army, and preparing Basra airport for transfer to Iraqi control. "We remain on course to fulfil these tasks in the coming months, following which our military mission will change fundamentally, to a normal bilateral defence relationship, of the kind we have with other friends and partners in the region," Sir John said.
The White House welcomed the Iraqi cabinet approval – a boost for President-elect Barack Obama who has promised to begin withdrawing US soldiers as soon as he takes office in January – as an "important and positive step".