LONDON (Reuters) – Britain could start pulling its soldiers out of Iraq next year if local forces are strong enough to keep the peace, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Monday.
"I think it”s entirely reasonable to talk about the possibility of withdrawal of troops next year but it”s got to be always conditioned by the fact that we withdraw when the job is done," Blair told reporters after talks with Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi.
Blair said there was no question of British troops quitting Iraq before local security services could act on their own but said the buildup of Iraqi forces was gathering pace.
"This is a completely different situation from a year ago," he said at his Downing Street residence. "As that progresses, obviously the need for the multinational force reduces…but it”s a question of that happening when the job is done.
"It”s always been part of our plan to withdraw when the Iraqis are capable of looking after their own security."
Signs of a developing timetable are growing. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said on Sunday British troops could leave the country within a year because Iraqi security forces would be ready to replace them.
Mahdi, talking to reporters with Blair, echoed that assessment. "I think we will see a process next year for a certain, partial withdrawal," he said.
Britain has about 8,000 soldiers in Iraq, stationed mainly in the south. The area had been more stable than some other regions but violence has risen there in the last few months.
British Defense Secretary John Reid said any plans to hand over to Iraqi security forces would be dictated by events on the ground and continued attacks by insurgents would only delay the process.
But he, too, expected some British troops to return home next year.
"We are not saying that everyone will be out by the end of 2006 but we are saying that this process…is going relatively well and in the course of the next year we could well see the handover to Iraqi forces at certain places in Iraq, including in our own area," Reid told BBC Radio.
Iraqis are working on training their own soldiers and police to take full control of security of their country and fight a Sunni Arab insurgency that has killed thousands of people since 2003”s U.S.-led invasion.