Britain is likely to begin withdrawing its troops from Iraq next year, according to Jack Straw, who sought for the first time to set out a timeframe for withdrawal. The foreign secretary's comments in an interview ôn Wednesday marked an attempt by the government to spell out its thinking on how to bring about a handover to Iraqi forces and defuse the war as an election issue.
But there would be no reduction in troop levels before the end of 2005, Mr Straw said. The United Nations mandate that gives US and British forces the authority to remain in Iraq expires at the end of this year. As the Labour manifesto made clear, British troops would stay only as long as the Iraqi government wanted them.
Mr Straw, though, did not expect Baghdad's interim government to request a withdrawal and he suggested that the mandate would have to be renewed. He was “99 per cent certain” the 10,000 British troops would still be in Iraq at the end of the year. The UK would decide in the late autumn how to begin pulling out its forces in consultation with international partners including the US.
“There's a review which starts with the UN, so all of this takes place within the UN and obviously bilaterally with the US and other coalition partners,” he told the Financial Times.
“The period of progressive rundown in forces is much more likely to happen next year and not this year.
“I think it's got to be early autumn before the choices become clearer and maybe late autumn before you get a final decision, because you've obviously got to renew the mandate at some stage.”
Until now, there has been considerable uncertainty over the timing of a withdrawal. Labour's manifesto was vague on this, saying troops “will continue to train Iraqi security forces to take responsibility for their own future”.
Tony Blair has ruled out setting a deadline for withdrawal but said the coalition was set to agree “timelines” with the Iraqi government that would indicate the pace at which Iraqi forces could take control of peaceful parts of the country.
That will start with the UN-led review in June. A decision in the autumn would be made on the type of mandate needed and an assessment of Iraqi security forces would follow.
Mr Straw was confident of progress in the Middle East peace process and the creation of an independent Palestinian state some time after Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza.
He said he would be “very happy” to stay foreign secretary if Labour were re-elected.