British Defense Secretary John Reid says the incoming Iraqi government should begin an assessment next month that could lead to Iraqi forces taking over the security of entire provinces.
Defense Secretary Reid spoke about Iraq's future with London-based foreign correspondents on the occasion of the third anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion.
Reid has just returned from a visit to Iraq, where he reviewed the situation and discussed future operations with Iraqi leaders and officials from the multi-national forces.
He refuses to set a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops, but expects a review in April that could lead to Iraqi soldiers assuming full control of security in some peaceful provinces.
"It will be a decision led by the Iraqis themselves, after assessing each province," said John Reid. "And that assessment is scheduled to start next month, and I hope that the government of national unity is formed quickly, strongly and it can turn its mind to the economy, and to the governance, and also the security of the provinces, and one of the things it will attend to is that process of assessment."
Reid also plays down comments by former Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi that Iraq is already embroiled in a civil war.
"The situation in Iraq is serious, but it is not terminal," he said. "The situation encompasses an increase in sectarian violence, but it is not a civil war."
The defense secretary says Iraqi leaders so far are refusing to repeat the repression Iraq experienced under former president Saddam Hussein.
"There is and there has been for some time a systematic attempt by the terrorists to provoke civil war," noted John Reid. "But the Iraqi leadership of today does not have Saddam's evil tactic of dividing brother from brother in Iraq, pitting family against family. They do not employ as their tactic the systematic disintegration of Iraqi society. That was a civil war."
British forces in Iraq are deployed in the relatively peaceful southeastern corner of the country and are headquartered in the city of Basra. The Defense Ministry says 103 British troops have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion. Reid last week announced a reduction in the British force of 800 troops. That will leave about 7,000 British soldiers still in Iraq.