Phased Iraq Withdrawal to Begin in July

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US President George W.Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair will meet in Washington this week to discuss plans for an accelerated withdrawal of troops from Iraq, starting in July.

Reports in London said that in a phased pullout, in which the two countries would act in tandem, Britain would hand over to Iraqi security forces in Muthanna province in July and the Americans would follow suit in Najaf, the Shia holy city.

Other withdrawals would follow quickly over the remainder of the year in a much faster and more ambitious withdrawal than expected.

The reports came after Mr Blair paid a surprise visit to Baghdad to meet Iraq's new Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

US and British officials hope Britain's 8000 troops in Iraq can be cut to 5000 by the end of the year and the US's 133,000 troops to about 100,000. Iraqi security forces could be in charge of much of the country by the year's end.

Buoyed by the formation of Iraq's new unity Government at the weekend, senior officials travelling with Mr Blair said all foreign troops should be out of the country within four years.

Mr Blair is to hold further discussions on withdrawal at a White House summit with Mr Bush later this week.

Mr Blair flew in to support the new Government as Mr Maliki embarked on the daunting task of rescuing the country from spiralling violence and the threat of sectarian partition.

Mr Blair declined to give a precise countdown for the removal of the British forces in Iraq, saying only that "we want to move as fast as we can" without jeopardising security.

But loose timetables were beginning to emerge. In a joint statement, the two prime ministers said that "by the end of this year, responsibility for much of Iraq's territorial security should have been transferred to Iraqi control".

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