Al-Maliki: British troops not necessary in Iraq

(AP Photo)

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told The Times of London that the 4,100 British troops in southern Iraq are no longer necessary to provide security, though he said there may be a need for a few British troops to remain for training and technical issues.

"Definitely, the presence of this number of British soldiers is no longer necessary. We thank them for the role they have played, but I think that their stay is not necessary for maintaining security and control," al-Maliki said in the interview, published Monday.

"There might be a need for their expertise in training and some technical issues, yes, but as a fighting force, I do not think it is necessary," he said.

In a statement in London, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense agreed that Britain's military role was shifting from fighting to training and that al-Maliki had "acknowledged this important mentoring and training role."

"We are nearing the end of this mission but are not there yet," the spokesman said, declining to be named.

In July, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised a major troop withdrawal in the early months of 2009, but Britain's military has said it's premature to discuss specific figures.

Last August, the Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that most of Britain's contingent in Iraq would be withdrawn over the next nine months, leaving only a few hundred soldiers there.

During the interview, al-Maliki also expressed disappointment with the British performance during last spring's fighting in the southern city of Basra, during which Iraqi troops wrested control of the area from Shiite militias.

Iraqi officials complained at the time that they were disappointed with the amount of support provided by British troops there.

"The British forces withdrew from the confrontation from inside the city to the area of the airport," al-Maliki said. "They stayed away from the confrontation, which gave the gangs and the militias the chance to control the city."

He said the British, who had been in Basra since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, were unable to resolve the complex issues of tribalism, criminal gangs, militias and political movements in the area.

"Therefore when we entered Basra, we entered in many directions, we held reconciliations with the tribes, won the tribes to our side in the battle, which was not possible for the British," he said.

"At the time Basra was not under control of the local government, but in the hands of the gangs and militias. The local government was just a screen."

Al-Maliki also said his forces were more successful than the British because "we were prepared to take risks and make big sacrifices."

"Perhaps the British forces were not as prepared to make such sacrifices," he said.

The British military turned over provincial control of Basra to the Iraqi government in late December despite vicious infighting between Shiite factions and widespread militia infiltration of the local security forces.

But British troops remained on standby at their airport base outside the city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.

Al-Maliki said Britain's December withdrawal from the city was "very" premature. However, the British Defense spokesman said the decision to leave Basra "was taken jointly with the government of Iraq" and the U.S. command.

The British Ministry of Defense spokesman said in the statement that the British military presence in Basra was a "motivating factor" for much of the violence and that Britain's departure helped Iraqi forces develop "lasting solutions" to the problems there.

"The transformation of the security situation in Basra is a vindication of that strategy," the spokesman said.

Al-Maliki said relations with the British had improved since the end of the Basra fighting and "we are working to improve it further in other fields as we take over responsibility for security."

"The Iraqi arena is open for British companies and British friendship, for economic exchange and positive cooperation in science and education," he said.