Blair and Iraq's new leader set goals for withdrawal of coalition forces

British Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed Monday with Iraq's new leadership about a plan for Iraqi forces to begin taking over the security of some cities and provinces, with the goal of seeing all coalition forces eventually withdraw from Iraq.

Blair will travel to Washington later this week for a summit with President George W. Bush that is likely to focus on their overall strategy in Iraq.

After meeting, Blair and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a joint statement saying that in June Iraqi forces would begin "progressively and quickly taking on full responsibility for security from multinational forces in the cities and provinces of Iraq."

By year's end, they said, "responsibility for much of Iraq's territorial security should have been transferred to Iraqi control." At that point, al-Maliki said, two of Iraq's most violent provinces, Baghdad and Anbar, may be the last where coalition forces are needed.

British media quoted an unidentified senior British official traveling with Blair as saying the withdrawal of the coalition forces from Iraq should be completed within four years. But Blair's official spokesman said at a news conference in Baghdad that he could not confirm that. Blair and al-Maliki also declined to set any deadline to meet that goal.

Withdrawal is dependent on the "readiness of the Iraqi troops and the situation on the ground," Blair's spokesman said.

Handing over responsibility also does not necessarily mean that significant numbers of U.S.-led forces will start returning home. Instead, plans call for them to recede to large coalition bases as part of an intermediate stage where they will be on call, reports AP.

O.Ch.