The government is aiming to pull the vast majority of British troops out of Iraq by the middle of next year, defence sources have revealed.
While there are no plans to withdraw before George W Bush hands over to the new American president at the turn of the year, the decision is now expected to be made “in the first half of 2009”.
Only troops training Iraqi military or police and special forces are likely to stay, unless there is a sharp change for the worse.
In an indication of Britain’s keenness to withdraw, Des Browne, the defence secretary, emphasised last week that Iraqi troops were better able to keep southern Iraq peaceful than British soldiers.
The Iraqi military had broken the grip of militias controlling the southern city of Basra, he said on a visit to the United States. If British troops had tried to oust the militias, “we would still be fighting”, Browne told the Brookings Institution in Washington.
His comments followed the leaking of an army report that criticises the Treasury for fuelling unrest in southern Iraq by failing to fund reconstruction quickly enough.