From The Guardian on-line
Blair deadline for troops in Iraq
"Substantial numbers to leave in 18 months as Mr Blair admits security situation worse than he expected
Tony Blair yesterday set an 18-month deadline for pulling "very substantial" numbers of troops out of Iraq, as he admitted the conflict was the major "divisive" issue that had eroded public trust.
The prime minister said the security situation was worse than he had anticipated a year ago, and warned of an escalation in violence in the run-up to the June 30 handover.
He confirmed that a decision to send at least an extra 3,000 troops would be announced "within weeks" but was confident enough to provide a timetable for the first time for the withdrawal of troops.
Mr Blair said he anticipated the security situation would have improved within a year to allow most troops to leave.
"The important thing is we've got to remain there until the job is done - although I hope and anticipate that in a year's time there will be a very substantial reduction in troops from where we are now," he told BBC1's Breakfast with Frost.
"I would want, certainly by the end of next year, to have a substantial reduction in the British troop commitment.
"It depends on the capability of the Iraqis but when I spoke to the Iraqi defence minister just the other day he was very upbeat about it."
That target is the most specific indication Mr Blair has given about the timing of an "exit strategy" for British troops, which will number around 8,900 when an extra 370, announced last week, are dispatched.
A fortnight ago, he insisted he would not "cut and run" but "stay the course". But, as he admitted yesterday, the public have been concerned at the apparent lack of an "exit strategy" and the new timetable is designed to allay such fears.
Despite the promise of a large-scale withdrawal, Mr Blair also confirmed that at least 3,000 fresh troop deployments were to be made.
But he denied that this move - designed to help stabilise the country and assist Iraqis in the months leading up to next January's elections - had been delayed because it would be politically damaging to Labour ahead of next week's local and European elections. "It's not being delayed because of the elections at all. It's simply...you need to make sure you get the decision right," he said.
The delay, he said, had been caused by discussions over numbers and over precisely where they should be deployed, with British commanders understood to be anxious they should not be deployed in troublespots such as Najaf.
But military chiefs are convinced, whatever ministers say, that the government is delaying a decision to send thousand of extra troops to Iraq for political reasons.
"Politicians will have to work out how sell it," said one senior defence source. He appealed to ministers to "get on with it".
The chiefs of staff have already drawn up a plan to deploy 3,000 troops in central Iraq, including the holy city of Najaf, in response to a request from the Americans.
The aim, shared by military chiefs and ministers alike, is to get out of Iraq as soon as possible."