British troops will start leaving Iraq next May under detailed plans, drawn up by London and Washington, to be presented next month to the Iraqi parliament, the Observer newspaper reported yesterday.
Quoting senior military sources, it said the blueprint "will lay out a point-by-point `road map' for military disengagement by multinational forces," with the first steps possibly going into effect soon after the December polls.
It said Britain has already "privately" informed Japan of its plans to begin withdrawing from southern Iraq next May, a move that would make it impossible for some 500 Japanese troops in the sector to remain.
There was no immediate reaction from Prime Minister Tony Blair's government to the report, which appeared in time for the start of the annual conference of his Labor Party in Brighton, on England's south coast.
Speculation about the future of British forces in Iraq intensified this week after the arrest by Iraqi police of two undercover British soldiers who were subsequently rescued by comrades in the main southern city of Basra.
A YouGov opinion poll for Five News television, released yesterday after several thousand people joined an anti-war march in London, found that 57 percent of respondents thought British forces should pull out.
The Observer quoted Defense Secretary John Reid as saying in an interview that a pullout strategy was contingent on ongoing efforts to establish a permanent democratic government in Iraq.
"The two things I want to insist about the timetable is that it is not an event, but a process, and that it will be a process that takes place at different speeds in different parts of the country," he said.
"I have said before that I believe that it could begin in some parts of the country as early as next July. It is not a deadline, but it is where we might be, and I honestly still believe we could have the conditions to begin a handover."
The Sunday Telegraph offered an alternative version, saying it has learned that the Ministry of Defence "is still planning to deploy large numbers of troops" until at least January 2008.