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Iraq Says Time For British Troops To Go

Nuri al-Maliki
LONDON (Reuters) -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has been quoted as saying it was time for British combat forces to leave the south of the country because they were no longer needed to maintain security and control.

Al-Maliki told "The Times" newspaper in an interview there might still be a need for their experience in training Iraqi forces and on some technological issues, but the emphasis was now on business links.

He thanked U.S.-led forces for their "important help" but said "the page has been turned".

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

Britain was U.S. President George W. Bush's main ally in the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein from power.

British troops have helped train the Iraqi Army and Navy, while a special-forces unit based in Baghdad has been used to strike at militants from Al-Qaeda and other groups. Britain has 4,100 troops in Iraq at present.

Al-Maliki referred to what was widely seen as a low point in Britain's presence in Iraq when its forces left their base in the southern city of Al-Basrah last year for a base at the airport on the outskirts.

"They stayed away from the confrontation, which gave the gangs and militias the chance to control the city," al-Maliki said.

"The situation deteriorated so badly that corrupted youths were carrying swords and cutting the throats of women and children," he said.

"The citizens of Basrah called out for our help...and [Iraqi forces] moved to regain the city."