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LONDON - Britain could start withdrawing its troops from Iraq during the next year, Defense Secretary John Reid said Sunday, confirming the contents of a leaked government memo.

In an interview with CNN's "Late Edition," he said neither Britain nor the United States had "imperialist ambitions" in Iraq, and both want Iraqi forces to take over responsibility for security.

Reid made the remarks when asked to comment on the memo, signed by him, which stated that Britain is considering reducing its troop presence from the current 8,500 to 3,000 by the middle of 2006.

The memo, first published in a British newspaper last week, also says there is a "strong U.S. military desire for significant force reductions."

Reid declined to comment directly on the memo but confirmed Britain's strategic plan was to transfer security responsibility to Iraqi soldiers.

"If we had an open ended presence there, and were never envisaging that the Iraqis could take control of their own country, we would be rightly criticized for long term imperialist ambitions. We have none," Reid told CNN.

Blair's official spokesman, who speaks on customary condition of anonymity because he is a civil servant, said the memo merely confirms the government's long-standing plan to train Iraqi forces and gradually hand over security responsibility.

"It should come as no surprise that we are going through the thinking process of how we achieve that," he said. "But as John Reid said, the process of transfer will only come at the point where the Iraqi government and ourselves believe that the Iraqi forces are capable of taking that load. Has there been a political judgment to withdraw? ... No."

Reid said Britain and the United States were looking forward to the day when Iraqi forces were strong enough to take the lead in handling security in their country, "and we can then give them support, but gradually run down our presence there.

"Now that is not going to be an event," Reid said. "That will be a process. I believe it is a process that could start, no more than that, over the next 12 months."

He noted that Iraq already had 170,000 trained troops, and he emphasized that a handover would take place in gradual phases.

In response, however, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said it was "unlikely" that troops could be brought home beginning next year.

"It's possible. It's unlikely. It depends on how rapidly we train up the Iraqi forces," he told the CNN program. "(Reid) uses the figure 170,000 trained. There's 170,000 in uniform, about less than one-fifth of that trained. But they're making progress."

The British government has long declined to set a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq, fearing doing so would give heart to militants waging a bloody insurgency there.

Britain has about 8,500 troops in Iraq, mostly in the generally peaceful Shiite south, where support for the Shiite-led government in Baghdad is stronger. Since the war started in March 2003, 92 British service personnel have died in Iraq.

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