British Defense Secretary John Reid is not setting a timetable for British troop withdrawal from Iraq, but he says a transitional handover process could start during the next 12 months. 

Britain has the second-largest number of foreign troops in Iraq, with about 8500 soldiers.

The fate of British troops there came under question last week, after a newspaper published what it said was a government memo in which London considered significantly cutting its troop presence in Iraq by the middle of 2006.

When asked about the memo on CNN's "Late Edition," British Defense Secretary John Reid did not address it directly. But he emphasized that his country's military commitment to Iraq will not be open-ended, because Britain does not have what he called "long-term imperialist ambitions."

"We look forward to the day when the Iraqis build up their own security forces, commensurate with taking control, as they are, of their own democratic processes, in order that they can initially take the lead, and we can then give them support, but gradually run down our presence there," Mr. Reid says.

He added that Britain does not want to be tied to what he called an "immutable time scale" for withdrawal.

"That will be a process. I believe it is a process that could start - no more than that - over the next 12 months," Mr. Reid says.

London has refused to set a hard deadline for withdrawing British troops from Iraq, saying it does not want to encourage militants who are waging a bloody insurgency there. More than 90 British soldiers have died in Iraq since the war started in March 2003.

In the United States, which has 136,000 troops in Iraq, the Defense Department says it has no specific plans to withdraw troops, and any withdrawal will depend on the security, political and economic situation.