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British PM eyes Basra transfer in Iraq visit: spokesman

10 December, 2007

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Britain will hand over Basra province to Iraqi control within two weeks, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said during a surprise trip to southern Iraq Sunday, his Downing Street office said.


Addressing troops in the southern Iraqi city, Brown said that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was recommending "a move to provincial Iraqi control within two weeks", a spokesman in London said.

"I have just talked to Prime Minister Maliki, and he has asked me to pass on his thanks to you for what you have done to help rebuild the democracy of Iraq," Brown said, according to the spokesman.

"It's because of all the operations we have done over the past few months that the security situation has not only improved, but he is now recommending a move to provincial Iraqi control within two weeks."

Britain has about 5,500 troops in southern Iraq, and Brown said in October that troop numbers would be cut by more than half to 2,500 by early next year as Iraqis assume control of Basra province.

"The prime minister came to address the troops," senior British military spokesman Major Mike Shearer told AFP by telephone from Basra.

"He was here for less than two-and-a-half hours. He wanted to show his gratitude to the troops for the work they have done in preparing the Iraqis to take on the mantle of provincial control in Basra.

"During the visit he telephoned Prime Minister Maliki. They agreed Basra should be transferred to Iraqi provincial control within two weeks."

No date has yet been fixed, Shearer said, adding that the transfer had long been set for mid-December. "We are still on schedule for that," he said.

About 500 British troops handed over their base at the Saddam-era Basra Palace in September after Iraqi security forces took control of the city, and they are now all stationed on a base just outside Basra city.

A parliamentary committee said Monday that Britain had failed in its original aim of bringing security to southern Iraq, and expressed concern about continued violence there and across the country.

"The initial goal of UK forces in southeastern Iraq was to establish the security necessary for the development of representative political institutions and for economic reconstruction," the House of Commons defence committee said.

"Although progress has been made, this goal remains unfulfilled."

Last month, however, a British general said that violence had plummeted in Basra and Iraq's security forces were in full control, while cautioning that the handover was not without risk as violence had not dropped off entirely.

In total, 173 British troops have been killed in Iraq since the US-led invasion of the country to oust dictator Saddam Hussein in March 2003, according to defence ministry figures.

Brown's visit to Iraq comes after he called for the immediate release of five British men kidnapped there, and rejected a demand by their captors that London withdraw all its troops from the country.

He was speaking after the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya news channel broadcast a video on Tuesday in which an armed group, who kidnapped a British management consultant and his four bodyguards, demanded that Britain leave Iraq within 10 days. It did not say what the consequences would be if it did not.

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