Conditions in Iraq are "well on the way" to being suitable for a withdrawal of UK troops, Defence Secretary John Reid has said.
Mr Reid said 'significant progress' had been made
He said "significantly fewer" service personnel could be posted to the country next year but added that the government would not "cut and run".
Iraqis wanted troops to leave "just as soon as the conditions are right", Mr Reid said in a speech in London.
The UK has about 8,900 troops stationed in Iraq, mainly in the south-east.
Last week, Corporal Gordon Pritchard became the 100th member of the UK armed forces to die in the conflict.
Mr Reid told the Foreign Press Association: "If the months go well, they bring the day closer when the Iraqi people can finally take control of their own futures.
"That also means that the time is approaching when the coalition which is helping them achieve this can begin leaving Iraq."
He added he would not speculate on numbers and dates because "to do so would be to invite chaos".
Mr Reid added: "Our commitment to Iraq and its people is unchanged and we have made significant progress."
He laid out four conditions to be met before withdrawal:
- The threat of insurgents must be reduced to a "manageable level"
- Iraqi security forces must be "more able" to deal with this threat themselves
- Local government bodies must be "effective" and receive central government backing
- The UK government must be "confident" it can still provide support to local forces, if needed
Mr Reid said: "Let me repeat, all of this depends on the conditions we have drawn up and the circumstances on the ground being right."
He added: "Our purpose in Iraq has never been to create a mirror-image of our own nation. That would never work and it is not what Iraqis want.
"Our purpose has been to give Iraqis the tools to build the kind of nation they want. It is not for us to say how that nation should look. That is for Iraqis to decide."
Iraq would never "look like a western European country", he added.
Mr Reid said the Iraqis shared "common hopes with all of us" involving "peace, security and freedom from persecution". National pride, too, was a shared emotion, he added.
Four other key elements already achieved were an established constitution, a fair political process, a growing economy and military forces working for the citizens rather than against them.
Mr Reid said terrorists were "desperately afraid of an Iraq whose people come to see extremism as the enemy of progress, not as an answer to injustice".
But he stressed: "Our key task is not, as some claim, to defeat the insurgency raged against Iraq. It is to ensure that Iraqis have the ability to do that."
In a "few parts of the country", he went on, the majority were "essentially passively acquiescing" in attacks by insurgents
"The day we leave will not be the final step on the road for the new Iraq. It will be the first," he added.