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British troops may leave within a year, says Iraqi Vice-President
The Independent (UK)
By Anne Penketh and Colin Brown
January 16, 2007

British troops could withdraw from Iraq within a year provided the Iraqi armed forces are reformed, says the country's Vice President.

Tariq Al-Hashimi, a member of Iraq's minority Sunni Muslim community, called for entire units of the Saddam Hussein-era Iraqi army to be reinstated, which he said would speed up reform and eliminate sectarian tensions. He made the comments as it emerged that Tony Blair had discussed boosting the number of UK soldiers in Afghanistan.

Mr Hashimi said the split between Shia and Sunni Muslims was being reinforced because recruitment centres based admissions on the ID cards of volunteers. Asked when he thought the 7,000 British troops could withdraw, Mr Hashimi replied: "Within one year if we go for this comprehensive reform plan. I am definitely sure that in one year we could complete the job properly."

He stressed that although the presence of foreign troops was a factor in the insurgency, coalition forces should remain until the Iraqis were able to take over.

Downing Street said yesterday that any withdrawal will depend on "conditions on the ground'. However, officials were not ruling out a total withdrawal of British troops in time, rather than a retreat to barracks.

The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is under pressure from the Bush administration to curb the militias who have pushed the country to the brink of civil war, with the help of an additional 21,500 American troops being dispatched to Iraq. The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, has warned Mr Maliki, a Shia, he is living on "borrowed time". Mr Hashimi said that if Mr Maliki ended his alliance with the Shia militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, who heads the Mehdi Army, he would "assist him in this hard decision."

The Prime Minister's official spokesman failed to deny a report in The New York Times that Mr Blair had discussed sending more British troops to Afghan-istan in talks on Sunday with the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates.

Britain's Nato partners are reluctant to send troops to fight the Taliban but there are fears that the British forces could face a rise in attacks after the winter.

Labour MPs would be enraged if Mr Blair pulled troops out of Iraq to send them to Afghanistan. But the Prime Minister's official spokesman refused to rule out Britain would plug the gap by sending more forces.

Original Text