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Beckett predicts Basra handover by the spring

Britain could complete the handover of southern Iraq to the country's security forces by next spring, Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, said yesterday.

She expressed "confidence" that officials might be able to transfer security operations in Basra to Iraqi forces within months.

Mrs Beckett outlined the first tentative timetable for the scaling down of British operations in Iraq. It could see British forces completing the handover in their area of operations by the time Tony Blair steps down from No 10 and help to clear the decks for Gordon Brown.

She declared she hoped British forces would be able to hand over the Maysan province to Iraqi security forces in January, with the final handover in Basra coming by the spring. But officials insisted British troops would remain in Iraq even after control was transferred to local personnel.

Her upbeat statement came despite a report from the UN showing that 3,709 Iraqi civilians were killed in October, the highest monthly toll since the US-led invasion three years ago.

The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq report highlighted attacks on journalists, judges and lawyers and the worsening situation of women, violence against religious minorities and the targeting of schools.

The report said: "Hundreds of bodies continued to appear in different areas of Baghdad handcuffed, blindfolded and bearing signs of torture and execution-style killings. Many witnesses said the perpetrators wore militia attire and even police or army uniforms."

Downing Street stressed any handover of control to Iraqi forces in the south of the country would be dependent on conditions on the ground. The Prime Minister's spokesman said the move would have "implications" for British forces, but declined to say whether it would allow soldiers to be pulled out of Iraq.

In the Commons yesterday, Mrs Beckett said the US-administered Najaf province was likely to be the next area transferred to Iraqi control in December.

She added: "In our own area of responsibility we expect Maysan to follow in January and the progress of the current operation in Basra gives us confidence we may be able to achieve transition in that province too at some point next spring.

"There is no question of us cutting and running from Iraq - to do so would be an act of gross irresponsibility, abandoning the Iraqi people to bloodshed perhaps even worse than we see today."

Britain has already handed over the al-Muthanna and Dhi Qar provinces to Iraqi forces and has pulled out of its base in Maysan province to the UK headquarters in Basra.

Sir Menzies Campbell, Liberal Democrat leader, said: "The Government's position remains of having neither a strategy for staying or for going. We are still unduly subject to American influence."

Bob Marshall-Andrews, a Labour critic of the invasion, said: "It is impossible not to draw a conclusion that we are being moved out of Iraq when the Prime Minister is leaving British politics. It is impossible to accept that what was a manifest disaster has suddenly, in the course of three weeks, become a conspicuous success."