British Official: Iraqi Forces Ready to Take Control Within a Year

Iraqi police and military forces should be ready to take over control of the country from U.S.-led forces within a year, a British government minister said Saturday.

Another governing-party lawmaker, however, warned that it was unlikely Iraq could remain a single country once U.S. and British troops left.

Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells said "the Iraqi army is coming along very well."

"I would have thought that certainly in a year or so there will be adequately trained Iraqi soldiers and security forces — police men and women and so on — in order to do the job," Howells told British Broadcasting Corp. radio.

"I would be very surprised if there was not that kind of capacity taking on a lot of the work done by the coalition forces."

However, Howells warned that "it's going to take a lot of blood yet" before Iraq becomes a stable democracy.

British officials have spoken in recent months of cutting troop levels in Iraq from the current 7,000 to between 3,000 and 4,000 by mid-2007, but no firm date for withdrawal has been set.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has been under growing pressure to set a timetable for a pullout. Last week the country's top soldier, Gen. Richard Dannatt, called for British troops to be withdrawn "sometime soon" and said their presence was provoking rather than preventing violence.

Blair said this week that it would be a "gross dereliction of our duty" to withdraw before Iraqi forces were able to take responsibility for security

In more unwelcome comments for the prime minister, The Observer newspaper on Saturday quoted a former head of the British military, Field Marshal Sir Peter Inge, as saying, "I don't believe we have a clear strategy in either Afghanistan or Iraq."

The newspaper said Inge told a meeting sponsored by the Open Europe think tank on Tuesday that Britain had "lost the ability to think strategically" and risked defeat in Afghanistan if it did not change its approach.

Labour Party lawmaker Doug Henderson, a former defense minister, said in comments reported Saturday that Iraq would probably break into at least three countries — Sunni, Shia and Kurdish — once allied troops have withdrawn.

"I doubt if Iraq can be retained as one nation in the future," Henderson told GMTV television in an interview to be broadcast Sunday. "I hope it can be, but I think it's very unlikely that that will be the case."

Extracts from the interview were released late Saturday by the broadcaster.