British troops could leave Iraq by the end of next year, the country's president Jalal Talabani has predicted.
Mr Talabani said an immediate withdrawal would be a "catastrophe"
But he warned an immediate withdrawal of multinational forces rather than a gradual one would be a "catastrophe" for Iraq and would lead to civil war.
He told ITV1's Jonathan Dimbleby programme Iraqis did not want foreign troops to remain indefinitely.
"Within one year....Iraqi troops will be ready to replace British forces in the south," he said.
Defence Secretary John Reid told the BBC a pull-out beginning next year was a possibility.
But he added: "I've always said we will stay there until the job is done. The job will be done when we can achieve the handover to the Iraqi forces themselves. We are training them, they are becoming more capable and it's quite possible that in the course of the next year that's a process which could begin."
The head of the British Army, General Sir Mike Jackson, said Mr Talabani's prediction of a British departure by the end of 2006 was "well within the range of what is realistically possible", but "it's a question of achieving the right conditions".
He told BBC1's Sunday AM programme: "We need to be careful about timetables and end dates. It is much talked about, but it is not the best way of looking at this."
Gen Jackson said he was "quite encouraged" by a visit last month to Iraq.
While accepting that the security situation was "rather less than anyone would wish", he stressed that incidents were largely confined to four of Iraq's 18 provinces.
'Main job over'
The BBC News website's world affairs correspondent, Paul Reynolds, said: "The significance of what Mr Talabani has said is he has put a target date where nobody had dared to do so before. However this remains a hope not a policy."
Mr Talabani was pressed on whether his prediction of UK troops leaving "at the end of 2006" amounted to a commitment.
The Kurdish leader said he had not been in negotiations and it was merely an "estimation of the situation".
"There is not one Iraqi that wants that forever the troops remain in the country," he added.
The Iraqi leader said he understood the British people were eager for their troops to return home.
He said: "British people have full right to ask this, their sons coming back home, especially if they finished their main job, which was the ending of dictatorship."
Mr Talabani called for a gradual pull-out, with close co-ordination between coalition nations and the Iraqi authorities.
To support his stance, he issued a stark warning of a "catastrophe" in the event of an immediate withdrawal.
He said if his country descended into civil war, it could have harmful consequences for the whole Middle East region.
Mr Talabani said: "It would lead to a kind of civil war and... we will lose what we have done for liberating Iraq from worst kind of dictatorship.
"Instead of having a democratic, stable Iraq, we will have a civil war in Iraq, we will have troubles in Iraq [and they] will affect all the Middle East."
He acknowledged that an upsurge of violence could be expected in the run-up to National Assembly elections scheduled for 15 December.
However, he rejected suggestions insurgents would have an impact on the result.
"I think they will fail, because the Iraqi people are now determined to participate in election. Even our Sunni Arab brothers are participating actively - they have many lists for election and they want to be represented in the next parliament."
Mr Talabani also acknowledged mistakes were made in the re-establishment of Iraqi police and security services in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's downfall.
But he denied there was a link between Britain's involvement in the Iraq war and the 7 July terror attacks in London.
The Liberal Democrats' defence spokesman, Michael Moore, said Mr Talabani's comments should "focus attention on the need for a clearly stated exit strategy from Iraq".
"The coalition must internationalise the support for the Iraqi authorities as part of a strategy which sets out the appropriate milestones for security, public services and the full transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people," he said.