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Britain urges Bush to set out Iraq withdrawal timetable
Updated: 2005-01-20 13:23

Britain is urging America to announce a timetable for withdrawing coalition troops from Iraq over the next 18 months or more.

With a new Iraqi government due to take power after next week's elections, The Telegraph has learned that British officials believe the time is ripe for the coalition to announce an "indicative timetable" for its departure.

An Iraqi family watch as a US patrol passes them in Khatoon

There would no firm deadline and the withdrawal would depend on the gradual ability of Iraq's armed forces to take over responsibility for security – probably not before the middle of next year. Such an announcement would be the first time the coalition had set a clear target for leaving.

British officials say that a timetable, however tentative, would signal an exit strategy, bolster the transitional government and undermine the insurgents' claim that America intended to occupy Iraq indefinitely.

The Government is hopeful that President George W Bush will agree to make a formal announcement within two or three months.

"Giving a timetable would be an important political signal that we intend to leave Iraq," a well-placed Whitehall source said. "The main Iraqi parties are already talking about when coalition forces should be drawn down. America knows it will have to deal with the issue soon."

Washington has resisted committing itself to a pull-out date for its 150,000 troops, fearing that it would be seen as a sign of weakness and encourage the gunmen.

Condoleezza Rice, who is expected to be confirmed today as the new secretary of state, said this week: "I am really reluctant to try to put a timetable on that because I think the goal is to get the mission accomplished - and that means that the Iraqis have to be capable of some things before we lessen our own responsibility."

But pressure is mounting in Washington for the administration to explain its exit strategy. A senior source there said: "After the Iraqi elections we have to look seriously at the extent of American and coalition military presence. The more you turn things over to the Iraqis, the less there is the need for an outside presence."

Such comments mark a change of emphasis by the US and Britain. Only last month Tony Blair's central message when he visited Baghdad was that the coalition was unshakable in its resolve to win the "battle between democracy and terror".

The biggest problem for a coalition exit strategy has been the often lamentable performance of the Iraqi forces, with units sometimes melting away when attacked.

Iraqi security forces have borne the brunt of recent attacks as the Jan 30 election date approaches.

Miss Rice said the security forces were doing "relatively well" but conceded: "They do need to address these questions of leadership, which then lead to problems with desertion and the like."

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