Brown heralds handover of power in Basra to Iraqis

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Gordon Brown flew in to Basra yesterday to announce the handover of control of the region to Iraqi forces, although senior sources have confirmed British troops will still have a combat role in Iraq until at least the spring.

Special forces will also continue to patrol the border with Iran after the adoption of an "overwatch" role by British troops in an attempt to intercept insurgents and weapons. "Nothing is going to change along the border," said a senior source travelling with the Prime Minister.

Earlier, he warned insurgents who are threatening to kill hostages in Basra, including a British man, that their action was futile. "To take hostages is completely unjustified and wholly unacceptable and we make it clear that they will not change our policy in any way," he said.

He has privately dismissed any suggestion that the trip to Basra is intended in part to deflect attention from his domestic woes over party funding and lost data discs. He is determined to show he is getting on with the business of government, said the sources close to the Prime Minister. Thanking troops on the ground for helping to make Basra more secure, Mr Brown was impressed by the high morale he found. Troops told him they had plenty of equipment in spite of criticism by chiefs of staff over defence spending.

Mr Brown told the troops: "Your courage and bravery is something I want to thank you for that is why the British people are so grateful to you."

Policing in Basra will come under the control of the Iraqi army and police for the first time since the invasion in 2003. Mr Brown refused to set a timetable but the remaining 4,700-strong force of British troops will be based at Basra airport for back-up. There will be a review next March when Mr Brown aims to reduce the force of British troops in Iraq to 2,500. "They won't be patrolling but they will be available," said a source.

The Prime Minister considered pulling out more troops before Christmas and promised in October to have reduced British numbers in Basra by 1,000 by Christmas. He was accused of "spinning" the figures but yesterday dismissed a report as "plain wrong" that only 120 troops had been withdrawn since his announcements.