|Iraq's Prime Minister Prime Minister Nouri Maliki announced that Iraqi forces will take over security next month in a southern province, opening the way for the eventual withdrawal of foreign troops.
The decision, announced after Maliki met with Japan's ambassador, does not necessarily mean that any US-led coalition forces will withdrawn from Muthana province.
"It's an important day for Iraq and a very important day for the UK as well as an important day for the region and for the people of Muthana province," Defence Secretary Des Browne said in Baghdad.
"We have been anticipating this day for some time when the Iraqi government was able to announce they could take over control of a province and we could agree that their forces were ready to do that."
"What it does is it begins the process which will eventually lead to our ability to draw down our forces in Iraq," he told the BBC.
Maliki has said his national unity government plans to gradually take over security for all of Iraq's provinces within the next 18 months.
"Muthana province will be the first province where this plan with start and this is proof that our forces are capable of dealing with the security file. That security file will be transferred next month, God willing, and we will set the day," he said.
Japan has about 600 troops in Muthana's capital, Samawah, carrying out other humanitarian tasks. Australia has about 1,320 troops in Iraq and the Middle East, including around 460 soldiers guarding Japanese engineers in Samawah. Britain has about 8,000 troops in southern Iraq, and roughly 2,000 others in Gulf region.
Australian troops would stay in southern Iraq after the Japanese forces they are currently guarding leave, switching to a role providing back-up to Iraqi security forces, Prime Minister John Howard said. "We would continue to see a role, albeit a somewhat different role, for our forces in southern Iraq," Howard said.
Browne said the transfer could happen next month, adding that all 170 British troops in the province would eventually leave. They may be redeployed to other areas of Iraq rather than brought home, the ministry said.