The first British troops may be able to start leaving southern Iraq in a matter of months, UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has said on a visit there.
British troops have tried to forge closer relations with Iraqis
Mr Straw was on a brief visit to the British base in Basra where he met local politicians and UK commanders.
He said indications were that one or two provinces outside Basra may soon be stable enough to pull some troops out.
Mr Straw, now in Baghdad, told the BBC the next two or three months were fundamental to Iraq's future.
"If we get it right, it will be optimistic," he said. But if they got it wrong, it would create a "serious problem" he added.
BBC diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall said Mr Straw's trip to Basra was spent entirely inside the British compound.
"Although Basra is generally safer than other parts of the country it is still considered too precarious for him to venture into the city itself for his talks with local Iraqi politicians and the regional governor," she said.
Mr Straw was also given a briefing on security for the whole British sector in southern Iraq and to gauge how well the training of Iraqi police was going.
He would not give a precise timetable for UK troops leaving Iraq, but he said the British were now looking forward to handing over responsibility for these areas to Iraqis as soon as possible.
Mr Straw cautioned that other factors had to be taken into account too, like whether a rapid deal could be reached on a new broad-based central government, reported Bridget Kendall.
"After last year's elections it took months of difficult horse-trading to reach agreement and the bigger worry is not just the problem of day to day violence but a deepening rift between rival coalitions and groups, many with their own militias that could raise the real threat of Iraqi being pulled apart," she said.