British troops could leave Iraq in just over a year, the country's President, Jalal Talabani, said in the clearest indication yet of a timetable for withdrawal from the conflict.
Mr Talabani's statement yesterday was immediately backed by Britain's Secretary of State for Defence, John Reid, and General Sir Mike Jackson, the head of the Army, as a feasible exit schedule.
The timescale tallies with contingency plans drawn up by the Ministry of Defence for extracting the British force of about 8,000 from Iraq as the military prepares for greater commitment in Afghanistan.
Backing for the plan also came from the Iraqi Vice-President, Adel Abdul Mahdi, who said in the US that he envisaged a partial pullout of coalition forces next year. Mr Mahdi's staff said that although a full withdrawal by US forces was not realistic, the Vice-President will tell Tony Blair in a meeting scheduled for today in London that the British contingent in the south will probably be able to leave without seriously jeopardising security.
Mr Talabani, speaking on the Jonathan Dimbleby programme on ITV 1, said an immediate withdrawal of coalition forces would be "catastrophic" and lead to a civil war. But, he said, "We don't want British forces for ever in Iraq. Within one year - I think at the end of 2006 - Iraqi troops will be ready to replace British forces in the south."
Asked whether this was a definite commitment, Mr Talabani said: "Well, I haven't been in negotiations, but in my opinion and according to my study of the situation ... there is not one Iraqi that wants that for ever the troops remain in the country. British people have full right to ask for their sons coming home, especially if they finished their job, which was the ending of the dictatorship."
Mr Mahdi, speaking in front of a large Arab population in Dearborn, near Detroit, Michigan, said " I've discussed the pullout possibility with [US Defence] Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld and we agree on the future course. We are optimistic about the build-up of Iraqi forces to cope with the situation.
"We have been preparing ourselves, politically, for a pullout of troops. We have a solid political situation and we don't want to have a security vacuum of any kind.
Mr Reid maintained that the Iraqi President's comments were "completely consistent with what I've said, which is that we will stay in Iraq until the job is done. That job is done when the Iraqis themselves are capable of taking their own security into their own hands, and that handover is something that could begin in parts of Iraq in the course of next year."
General Jackson said: "The President has said that we could leave within a year, and I would agree we most certainly could, but it is a question of achieving the right conditions." He said he was "quite encouraged" by a visit to Iraq last month, where he found the political progress made "in some ways quite remarkable".
General Jackson acknowledged that the security situation was "rather less than anyone could wish" but stressed that the serious violence was largely confined to four of Iraq's 18 provinces, none of which is in the British controlled south.
Mr Reid had said previously of disengagement: "There will be a process ... where they [Iraqi forces] gradually take the lead, we gradually withdraw to barracks and we gradually withdraw from Iraq itself." This appears already to be happening, to a large extent, in the south. British forces now largely stay in their bases, seldom venturing into Basra, Iraq's second city, leaving security to Iraqi police.
The decision to draw back was taken after violence erupted when British forces stormed a police station to rescue two SAS soldiers who had been arrested by Iraqi police. Both local Iraqis and the British military say the police force has been heavily infiltrated by Shia militiamen.Reuse content