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Talabani: U.S. Troop Withdrawal Talks to Start in 2006

Talks on withdrawing U.S.-led foreign troops from Iraq can begin as early as at the end of next year, Iraq's president said Monday, adding that British troops likely could start a "step-by-step" exit in 2007.

President Jalal Talabani, in Austria to attend a three-day conference on Islam, gave no timetable for the full pullout of troops.

"We think that in the next two years we will have come so far and our police forces will have been sufficiently trained that it will be possible to begin talks about pulling out foreign troops, either during next year or after next year," he said.

Talabani's remarks that British troops likely could start a "step by step" exit in 2007 apparently was at odds with a suggestion he made in an interview broadcast Sunday, when he told Britain's ITV network that the 8,500 British soldiers in Iraq could be gone by the end of next year.

"After the end of 2006, British troops can be pulled out step by step in cooperation with Iraq forces," Talabani said Monday.

On Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi said U.S. troops could begin leaving in significant numbers sometime next year. But President Bush has refused to set a timetable, saying that would play into the hands of insurgents.

Talabani said the security situation in Iraq was improving and described the insurgency as mostly limited to four provinces dominated by Sunni Muslim hard-liners who strongly oppose any political process while foreign troops remain.

The number of attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere has been significantly reduced, he said, but he added that the attacks are "increasingly brutal" and target the general population.

"Those carrying out the attacks have opened a war against the majority of the Iraqi population," he said, according to the German translation of his statements in Arabic. "That's not defending Islam, but dragging Islam into the dirt."

Talabani said those orchestrating the attacks were not from Iraq and were not part of any resistance movement.

"It has nothing to do with resistance. These people kill women, children. ... These people are not part of any resistance against foreign troops," he said. "They are criminals who violate human rights."