Coalition hands over control of Iraqi province

Iraqi security forces are to take control of the southern province of Muthanna in what is the first of 14 handovers from coalition troops, the Iraqi prime minister has announced.

“Muthanna is the first Iraqi province that will have the honour of being transferred from multinational forces to Iraqi forces,” Nouri al-Maliki said.

British defence secretary Des Browne hailed the move as a “significant milestone” for the Iraqi people – although made clear it did not mean the 150 British troops stationed there would be brought home.

“This is a clear demonstration of the real progress being made in Iraq,” he said from Baghdad, where he is meeting with the Iraqi government to discuss the security situation this week.

“It is a vindication of our policy not to be driven by artificial timetables, but by conditions on the ground, by progress in governance, and by the growing capabilities of the Iraqi security forces.

“A great deal of work remains to be done and I am under no illusions about the challenges we face. We and our coalition allies remain determined to see the job through.”

Muthanna is one of four provinces under British lead in the south of Iraq, and is home to deployments of Australian and Japanese troops. There is not yet a precise date for handing over control, but it is likely to be carried out next month.

Once the handover is complete, there will be no coalition forces permanently based in the province, although they will “retain the capability to re-intervene if the governor judges that the security situation demands”, a Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesman said.

Mr Browne said last week that the handover of Muthana would be followed by that of Maysan, where Britain has 1,000 troops. It is part of the 18-month withdrawal plan announced by Mr al-Maliki when he took office in May.

“Muthana province will be the first province where this plan will start and this is proof that our forces are capable of dealing with the security file. That security file will be transferred next month, God willing, and we will set the day,” the prime minister said.