WORLD / Middle East

Blair, new Iraqi leader discuss security
(AP)
Updated: 2006-05-23 09:16

British Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed with Iraq's new leadership Monday that Iraqi security forces would start assuming full responsibility for some provinces and cities next month, beginning a process leading to the eventual withdrawal of all coalition forces.


Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair is caught in sand blown by his helicopter as he says goodbye to British soldiers after a suprise visit to Baghdad. Monday May 22, 2006. He was in the Iraqi capital for a surprise visit to mark the formation of a new government pledged to defeat terrorism. [AP]

Blair and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declined to set a timetable for that withdrawal, but British media quoted an unidentified senior British official traveling with Blair as saying coalition forces should be out within four years.

The British and Iraqi leaders said "responsibility for much of Iraq's territorial security should have been transferred to Iraqi control" by December. At that point, al-Maliki said, two of Iraq's most violent provinces, Baghdad and Anbar, may be the last where coalition forces maintain control.

However, handing over security responsibilities to the Iraqis does not necessarily mean that significant numbers of U.S.-led forces will start returning home soon. Instead, plans call for them to move from cities to large coalition bases as part of an intermediate stage where they will be on call if the Iraqis need them.

"It has been longer and harder than any of us would have wanted it to be, but this is a new beginning and we want to see what you want to see, which is Iraq and the Iraqi people able to take charge in their own destiny and to write the next chapter of Iraqi history themselves," Blair said in the first visit by a foreign leader since al-Maliki's government took office Saturday.

Blair now heads to Washington for talks with President Bush that likely will focus on their overall strategy in Iraq.

In Chicago, Bush acknowledged to war-weary Americans that the situation in Iraq is improving only gradually, and he urged patience with "more days of challenge and loss."

Bush has refused to put a timetable on an American withdrawal, saying in March that American forces would remain in Iraq for years and a future president would decide when to bring them all home.

The United States has 132,000 service members in Iraq, while Britain has about 8,000. Like Bush, Blair has seen his public support fall because of opposition to the Iraq war.

On Monday, Blair and Iraqi al-Maliki issued a joint statement saying Iraqi forces would begin in June "progressively and quickly taking on full responsibility for security from multinational forces in the cities and provinces of Iraq."
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