Four more years: UK troops to stay in Iraq until 2010

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The Independent Online

The Prime Minister was the first Western leader to arrive in the Iraqi capital in what was a public show of solidarity with the new Iraqi leader, Nouri Kamil al-Maliki. Mr Blair declared the formation of the country's first elected administration to be a "new beginning" for Iraq.

But, as the level of inter-ethnic strife continues to rise across the country, it has emerged that the prospect of a swift withdrawal of all 7,200 British troops is negligible. Senior officials travelling with the Prime Minister indicated that 2010 could be the target date for ending Britain's peacekeeping role. Even after that date, military personnel could still be in Iraq helping advise and train government forces.

One senior member of Mr Blair's entourage said: "My guess is that during the next four years the present role and structure of the multinational force will change. We might well need the multinational force to continue in the Green Zone in a training or development role, but the sort of scale of force that we have today will change over that four year period.

"If the judgement is that the province is reasonably secure and calm then we should be able to withdraw."

The UK holds four out of Iraq's 18 provinces. Maysan and Muthanna provinces are relatively free of insurgency and sectarian violence, giving rise to the hope that British troops stationed there can be pulled out during the summer. But withdrawal from the other British held provinces, Basra and Dhi Kar, is expected to take far longer.

The issue of how and when the multinational force can leave was a major item in the private talks yesterday in Mr Maliki's Baghdad office. Afterwards, the two Prime Ministers issued an upbeat statement saying: "The Iraqi Prime Minister said that his Government will, in the weeks ahead, work with the multinational force on the details of the transition to Iraqi control."

Yesterday was Mr Blair's fifth visit to Iraq and the second time he has been to Baghdad since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein three years ago. His proximity to physical danger was dramatically illustrated when one of his convoy of Chinooks fired two flares over a small Iraqi village outside Baghdad. A glint of sunlight on metal had alerted the helicopter's sensors to the possibility of a missile strike. In fact it turned out to be a false alarm.

It was considered too risky for Mr Blair to be in Baghdad overnight so he flew to Kuwait on Sunday night, amid a security blackout and flew on to an airfield inside Iraq early yesterday morning in a Hercules military transport aircraft, transferring there to the Chinook. He flew back to Kuwait at the end of his visit after talks with Jalal Talibani, the Iraqi President.