Hutton pledges UK exit from Iraq

Defence secretary John Hutton has said UK forces will leave Iraq by the end of 2009.

Speaking at a joint meeting of the Commons’ defence and foreign affairs committees, Mr Hutton said British forces would be able to withdraw from Basra before the next election.

He pointed out the security situation in the south of Iraq had improved significantly in recent years but said it was still necessary for UK forces to remain in the country for now.

Basra had entered a “post Charge of the Knights phase”, he added, referring to the crackdown on Iraqi criminal elements in Basra and elsewhere in Iraq led mainly by Iraqi forces earlier this year.

Britain currently has around 4,000 troops in southern Iraq. Its forces are mainly engaged in ‘overwatch’ duty, supervising and training Iraq’s own security forces.

Agreement for a withdrawal must be achieved with the Iraqi government by the end of the year.

Progress is also being made elsewhere in the country. Wasit province, a central Shia-dominated region of the country, was today handed over from US to local control.

It is the 13th of Iraq’s 18 provinces to undergo such a transition and comes days after Babil province, including the formerly unstable ‘triangle of death’ region south of Baghdad, was also handed over.

Wasit had had a reputation as an area where Iranian militants smuggled arms into Iraq.

Mr Hutton was critical of Iran for undermining efforts at improving security in Iraq, but US commanders now say the border is secure and that the number of attacks has fallen dramatically.

Foreign secretary David Miliband, who also answered MPs’ questions at the meeting, said Iraqi security forces were strong enough in many areas of the country to take over full responsibilities.

He said a strong political system based on regular elections, a new constitution and legislation would be key to securing the rights of many in society, including women’s rights which he warned were under threat in many parts of Iraq.