British officials said they expected all foreign combat troops to withdraw from Iraq within four years, as British Prime Minister Tony Blair flew into Baghdad to show support to its new government yesterday.
It was the firmest statement yet from one of the two main allies in the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein on a date for pulling out troops from Iraq. Washington has said it is too soon to discuss such a timetable.
As Blair arrived in the capital's fortified Green Zone, two bomb attacks killed nine people in other parts of Baghdad -- a fresh reminder of the tough challenges new Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki faces in restoring stability.
The trip, just a day after Maliki's first Cabinet meeting, underlined the political capital Blair has invested in Iraq.
It also came a day after a series of bombs killed at least 19 people in Baghdad, the bloodiest of them being claimed by an al-Qaeda-affiliated Sunni Islamist militant group.
Washington and London count on Maliki, a tough-talking Shiite Islamist who has vowed to use "maximum force against terrorists," to start tackling such violence plaguing Iraq.
His government's appointment to some extent completes the process of rebuilding Iraq's political institutions, so much is now riding on those institutions performing to end the conflict.
A senior British official said Maliki's unity government will speed the handover of security control from US-led forces to Iraqis, letting London bring some troops home by mid-year.
Three years after the invasion to topple Saddam, the US has some 133,000 troops in Iraq while the British troop strength is around 7,000, mainly patrolling Iraq's south.
At least 2,450 US soldiers and 111 British troops have been killed in Iraq since 2003, and both countries are keen to start drawing down their military presence.
"The aim is to take Iraq to a position where the multinational force is able to withdraw during its [the government's] period in office," said a British official, accompanying Blair on his fifth visit to Iraq since the war.
"During the four years, the present role and structure of the multinational force will change and come to an end," he said, adding some troops may stay beyond the government's four-year term in a non-combatant role to train Iraqis.
Blair was meeting the top US and British military commanders in Iraq and members of the country's new government. Parliament was meeting for the first time since it approved the new government on Saturday.
Maliki said after he was sworn at the helm of a grand coalition of Shiites, minority Sunnis and Kurds that he will work to complete rebuilding Iraq's US-trained armed forces so foreign troops could leave within an "objective timetable."
Shortly before Blair arrived in a helicopter, a bomb exploded in a city market in the New Baghdad district killing at least three people and wounding 12, police sources said.
Meanwhile, France, Italy and Germany sanctioned the payment of a total of US$45 million in deals to free nine hostages abducted in Iraq, London's Times newspaper reported yesterday.
The paper said it had seen documents confirming that all three governments had paid cash ransoms for the release of kidnap victims, despite official denials.
According to the documents, held by security officials in Baghdad involved in hostage negotiations, sums from US$2.5 million to US$10 million per person were paid over the past 21 months.