Pledge that last British soldier will leave Iraq by 2010

Key quote

"It has been three years of struggle to try to get to this point and it has been longer and harder than any of us would have wanted it to be" - TONY BLAIR

Story in full BRITISH troops will leave Iraq within four years, officials said yesterday, as Tony Blair arrived in the country to show support for its new prime minister.

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The deadline of 2010 - given by senior government sources - was the first time that the British government has set a timetable for the withdrawal of its troops.

Mr Blair himself did not refer to the deadline. He stuck to his position that the transition would be dependent on conditions on the ground.

In a statement released after talks in Baghdad, Mr Blair and his Iraqi counterpart, Nouri Maliki, the Shiite prime minister, said they expected homegrown forces to take on responsibility for "territorial security" in much of Iraq by the end of this year.

The announcement will give hope to families of British troops stationed in the increasingly violent country, where 111 British soldiers have been killed.

It will also ease the pressure on Mr Blair, who risks leaving office with the chaotic aftermath of the war as his main legacy.

At a press conference in the Iraqi capital, where the coalition government met officially for the first time at the weekend, Mr Blair hailed the "new beginning" for Iraq, and said its formation after months of wrangling was a "symbol of hope" for other countries in the region.

"It has been three years of struggle to try to get to this point and it has been longer and harder than any of us would have wanted it to be," he said.

The statement was underscored by a spate of car bombs and shootings across the country yesterday, which left at least 17 people dead.

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Mr Blair said it had always been the intention to withdraw Britain's 8,000 troops as soon as the Iraqi authorities had the capability to maintain security themselves. An "objective timetable" had been agreed, but it would be driven by conditions on the ground, not deadlines in the calendar.

"We want to move as fast as we can on it, but it has got to be done in a way that protects the security of the Iraqi people," said Mr Blair.

This timetable would not trigger an automatic withdrawal of multinational forces or significant numbers of British troops coming home, aides cautioned.

However, it was confirmed that the withdrawal of multi- national forces would be completed by the end of the new Iraqi government's first four-year term of office in 2010.

Mr Blair was the first western leader to visit Iraq following the inauguration of its new government on Saturday, flying in by helicopter from Kuwait under conditions of strict secrecy. He stressed that the sooner the insurgents laid down their arms, the sooner foreign troops would leave their country. "It is the violence that keeps us here - it's peace that will allow us to go," he said.

There was now "no vestige of excuse for people to carry on with terrorism or bloodshed".

Mr Maliki insisted that Iraq was not in a state of civil war, but acknowledged that the possession of weapons by private militias remained a threat.

He said he expected Iraqi authorities to take control in the cities of Samawah and Amarah - capital of the British-held Maysan province - next month.

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The Iraqis hope to have 325,000 members in their national security forces by the end of the year, compared to the 264,000 currently serving in the army and police force.

Mr Blair hailed the formation of a coalition government, following an election in which more that 12 million Iraqis voted, as proof that the country was a better place after the US-led invasion in 2003.

"Here we are in a press conference where you are able to put me, the British Prime Minister and this, the new Iraqi prime minister, under pressure," he said.

"That's what's happened in Iraq. Iraq has a government elected by its people," the Prime Minister said. "For all the challenges we have to overcome, that's better, surely."

President Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish leader of Iraq, praised Mr Blair as "a great friend to the people of Iraq who will never forget Britain's role in the overthrow of Saddam's brutal dictatorship".

Mr Blair's visit came ahead of a trip to Washington later this week for talks with president George Bush at which the phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq will feature heavily.

Michael Cox, a professor and transatlantic relations expert at the London School of Economics, said the meeting will have an added significance as it could mark Mr Blair's final visit to Washington as premier.