September 5, 2006

Iraqi president sees UK troops gone by 2007

By Alastair Macdonald

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - British troops may be gone from Iraq by
the end of 2007 as local security forces assume greater
responsibility, President Jalal Talabani said on Tuesday, but
Britain's foreign minister stressed no timetable had been set.

"Coalition forces can't go now because that would create a
security vacuum," visiting Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett
said, noting Iraq was making "very slow" progress on security.

She described it as "two steps forward, two steps

Iraq's parliament, meeting for the first time after a
summer recess, extended a state of emergency, granting Shi'ite
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki extraordinary powers for another
month to tackle a Sunni insurgency and sectarian bloodshed.

The monthly renewal of Maliki's emergency powers came as
gunmen shot dead four Shi'ite pilgrims, the U.S. military
reported the deaths of three more of its soldiers, and Baghdad
police found seven bodies with gunshots to the head.

London and Washington see the buildup of Iraq's security
forces, now numbering close to 300,000, including troops and
police, as key to the withdrawal of the mainly American
combined forces of about 150,000.

Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih said on Tuesday that by
the end of 2006 nearly half of Iraq's 18 provinces would be
under control of Iraqi forces and that a delayed transfer of
command of Iraq's armed forces from U.S. commander General
George Casey to Iraqis would take place this week.

About 7,000 British troops control a swathe of Shi'ite
southern Iraq that has largely escaped the violence in the
Sunni-dominated and ethnically mixed provinces in central Iraq,
but which has witnessed a surge in violence in recent weeks.

Two soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb on Monday,
taking the British death toll since the start of the war to


"In my personal opinion, by the end of 2007," Talabani
said, when asked when he thought British troops would go home.
"By then we will have achieved good success in building our

He was speaking after meeting Beckett, in Iraq for her
first official visit. She would not be drawn into offering a
timetable for withdrawal and emphasized that Talabani, whose
post is largely ceremonial, was just giving a personal opinion.

A top British commander said last month Britain planned to
halve its force by the middle of next year. British forces
handed over control of one province to Iraqi forces in July and
are due to transfer power over a second this month.

While some Iraqis want foreign troops out, most officials
want them to stay until Iraqi forces are ready, Beckett said.

"Hardly anyone thinks that time is now or is likely to be
in the immediate future," she said.

The U.S. military said two Marines and a sailor were killed
on Monday in Anbar province, where fighting between U.S. forces
and Sunni insurgents is fiercest and U.S. casualties are

The deaths took to 2,650 the number of U.S. soldiers killed
in Iraq since U.S. forces invaded in March 2003.

Police said gunmen killed four Shi'ite pilgrims walking to
the holy city of Kerbala for a religious festival. Pilgrims are
a frequent and vulnerable target for Sunni insurgents.

Police also reported finding the bodies of seven people in
Baghdad with gunshot wounds to the head, five of them in the
mainly Sunni area of Adhamiya, where U.S. and Iraqi forces have
launched a major security crackdown.

(Additional reporting by Hiba Moussa, Mussab Al-Khairalla,
Ibon Villelabeitia in Baghdad)