British troops will start a major withdrawal from Iraq next May according to detailed plans to be published next month, The Observer newspaper reported on Sunday.
The plans being drawn up by Britain and the United States will be presented to the Iraqi parliament in October, the report said.
According to senior military sources, the document will lay out a point-by-point "road map" for military disengagement by multinational forces, the first steps of which could be put in place soon after December's nationwide elections.
Britain has already privately informed Japan of its plans to begin withdrawing from southern Iraq in May, a move that would make it impossible for the 550 Japanese soldiers in the region to remain, said the report.
The increasingly rapid pace of planning for British military disengagement was revealed on the eve of the Labor Party annual conference which began on Sunday in Brighton, a seaside resort in southern England.The conference is expected to see renewed demands for a deadline for withdrawal.
The agreement being drawn up with Iraqi officials was contingent on the continuing political process, British Defense Secretary John Reid told The Observer in an interview.
Reid expressed his optimism that British troops would begin returning home by early summer next year.
"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." said Reid.
"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 handover. I don't see any reason to change my view." he added.
Speculation about the future of British troops in Iraq intensified this week after the arrests by Iraqi police of two undercover British soldiers who were subsequently rescued by British forces in the southern city of Basra.
On Saturday, about 10,000 anti-war demonstrators marched through central London to press their demand for a withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. And the document will spark fresh controversy over how long British troops will stay in Iraq.
Britain, a staunch US ally on the Iraq war, is positioning some 8,500 troops in Iraq, mostly based in the south of the country near Basra.