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UK could hand Basra to Iraq forces in early 2007

Written by: Staff
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LONDON, Nov 22 (Reuters) Britain today said it could hand back Basra province to Iraqi control early next year, for the first time putting a date on a major step towards reducing its presence in Iraq.

''The progress of our current operation in Basra gives us confidence that we may be able to achieve transition in that province ... at some point next spring,'' Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett told parliament.

Britain, Washington's biggest ally in the Iraq war, has so far refused to be drawn on when troops might withdraw despite widespread criticism of Britain's involvement which has savaged Prime Minister Tony Blair's popularity ratings.

But with President George W Bush now rethinking strategy in Iraq after a crushing US mid-term election defeat, Blair has room to try to improve his standing at home before he steps down next year by detailing possible Iraq exit options.

Britain's troops are stretched as its soldiers in southern Afghanistan find themselves facing a revitalised Taliban and engaged in bloody combat, which Blair said this week was a vital battle for world security.

Britain has 7,200 troops in southern Iraq, mostly stationed in and around Basra. The city, Iraq's second biggest, remains dangerous with Shi'ite factions battling each other for control and British troops sometimes targeted.

''NOT CUTTING AND RUNNING'' However officials at the Ministry of Defence would not commit publicly to a specific timetable, saying any change would depend on conditions on the ground and the capabilities of Iraqi forces.

''We will only hand over provinces in consultation with the Iraqis,'' a defence ministry spokeswoman said. ''We are not cutting and running.'' Denmark, which has 470 troops under British command in Iraq, said it also hoped the Iraqi government could assume control ''as quickly as possible''.

''But we don't yet know if the Iraqis will be able to manage,'' Foreign Minister Per Stig Moller told Danish media.

''We can't begin to make arrangements on a hope. We need reality.

The signals are good but they also need to be fulfilled.'' Britain has handed over authority to Iraqi forces for two of the four southern provinces -- Muthanna and Dhi Qar -- it took responsibility for after the US-led invasion in 2003. Maysan province is due to meet the conditions for handover in January.

Asked if this meant British troops could be out of Iraq in a year, a government source said: ''This is a process not an event.

Responsibility for different areas is gradually handed over until the point comes when the whole province is handed over.

''After that multinational forces will continue to be available to support the Iraqi authorities if needed.'' In Basra, British military spokesman Captain Tane Dunlop said the handover would depend largely on the success of Operation Sinbad, due to end in January or February, which aims to retrain Basra police and improve basic services.

Reuters SBA VP0213

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