WITHDRAWAL SYMPTOMS….The Observer reports that the United States and Britain are close to agreement on a set of requirements for a phased withdrawal from Iraq:

British troops will start a major withdrawal from Iraq next May under detailed plans on military disengagement to be published next month, The Observer can reveal.

The document being drawn up by the British government and the US …. [is] now being negotiated between a commission representing the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, and senior US and UK diplomats and military commanders in Baghdad.

….Senior military sources have told The Observer that the document will lay out a point-by-point ‘road map’ for military disengagement by multinational forces, the first steps of which could be put in place soon after December’s nationwide elections.

Each stage of the withdrawal would be locally judged on regional improvements in stability, with units being withdrawn as Iraqi units are deemed capable of taking over….According to the agreement under negotiation, each phase would be triggered when key security, stability and political targets have been reached. The phased withdrawal strategy ? the British side of which is expected to take at least 12 months to complete ? would see UK troops hand over command responsibility for security to senior Iraqi officers, while remaining in support as a reserve force.

The British Defence Secretary is careful not to call this a “timetable,” but there’s only a hair’s worth of difference between a detailed set of targets and the timeline that rather obviously goes along with them. After all, once you’ve set out comprehensive goals, can you really avoid providing estimates for how long you think it’s likely to take to meet them?

The story is a little cagey about whether this plan applies only to British troops or also to American troops. The focus of the story is on British forces, but it’s not clear if that’s just because the Observer is a British newspaper or if it’s because there’s really a difference between British plans and U.S. plans. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: Via comments, Scotland on Sunday says pretty much the exact opposite. Last week’s violence in Basra, it says, has “led to the scrapping of a detailed plan that could have seen UK forces withdrawn by May next year. Instead, it now seems certain Prime Minister Tony Blair will have to keep British troops in the country until 2007 at the earliest.”

FWIW, the Observer article seems considerably better sourced. It’s always hard to tell with British papers, though, which often take a rather blog-like attitude toward their subjects.

UPDATE 2: Tony Blair kinda sorta denies the report. But he doesn’t really truly deny it.

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