The majority of British troops serving in Iraq will be withdrawn by the middle of next year because the southern port city of Basra - where they are based - is booming, it was claimed today.
Major General Barney White-Spunner, who has just returned from commanding British forces in southern Iraq, told the Guardian the UK was "getting close to what we set out to achieve".
And he painted a rosy picture of life in Basra, with house prices rocketing, restaurants opening and foreign investors beginning to move in.
But Major General White-Spunner's assessment differs from that given by recent visitors to the area, including journalist John Humphrys.
Last month Humphrys described the city as "hell on earth".
Writing in the Mail on Sunday, he said: "Talk of reconstruction rings hollow when you drive through the streets of this shattered city, stumble on the broken pavements, curse yet another power cut, recoil at the brown sludge that appears when you turn on a tap."
Major General White-Spunner said Basra's port of Umm Qasr was "booming", with major international oil companies lining up to invest in the region.
He said security was no longer seen as a problem and that "there is a view the militia is not going to come back".
He added: "Property prices have more than doubled since March. One house is going for £90,000, a threefold increase."
Both The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph said the optimistic message was reflected in plans to withdraw the majority of the UK's 4,100 troops currently serving in Iraq by middle of next year.
That follows Prime Minister Gordon Brown's stated intention for a "fundamental mission change" in the country.
Last month Mr Brown told MPs: "We will continue to reduce the number of British troops in Iraq.
"Of course, future decisions will be based - as I have always said - on the advice of our military commanders on the ground.
"But just as last year we moved from combat to 'overwatch', we would expect a further fundamental change of mission in the first months of 2009."
Last night a spokesman for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said while it was hoped that the UK's military presence in Iraq would be reduced, there was no timetable for withdrawal.
The spokesman said: "Although it is hoped that the UK military presence in Iraq will decrease significantly in the future, it is still too early to discuss the size and shape of a reduced UK forces footprint.
"In his statement to the House of Commons on 22 July, the Prime Minister set out the intent to make a fundamental change to the UK mission in Iraq in the first months of 2009.
"As ever, this will be based on conditions on the ground, the plans of our coalition partners and the military contribution requested of us by the government of Iraq under a long-term bilateral relationship.
"As a key coalition partner, the US is intimately involved with the development of our future plans.
"And, as (American) General (David) Petraeus stressed in his recent interview with The Times, the US is fully supportive of the UK's current position on Iraq and of our proposals for Iraq's future."
Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Edward Davey criticised the Government for failing to give a clear timetable for withdrawal.
And he said morale would be damaged by the news that troops were being used as "political cover" for Britain's relationship with the US.
"British troops and their families must be fed up of the series of nods and winks on withdrawal which often turn out to have no substance," Mr Davey said.
"Our forces' lives are on the line, and it is about time that the Government gave them some definite decisions, rather than vague hopes.
"Even if this latest hint turns out to be true, the timescale seems far too slow. Our troops should be home from Iraq by Christmas at the very latest.
"It must be immensely frustrating for our service men and women on the ground in Iraq to know they are there more as political cover for the Brown-Bush relationship than to provide any real help to the Iraqi people."Reuse content