British troops are no longer needed to maintain security in southern Iraq as the situation has changed, the country’s prime minister has said.
Nouri al-Maliki told the Times there might still be a need for their experience in training Iraqi forces.
He said a “page had been turned” in the country’s relationship with the UK.
But he criticised Britain’s decision to move forces from a base at a palace in Basra to an airport on the edge of the city last year.
He said: “They stayed away from the confrontation, which gave the gangs and militia the chance to control the city.
“The situation deteriorated so badly that corrupted youths were carrying swords and cutting the throats of women and children. The citizens of Basra called out for our help . . . and we moved to regain the city.”
On the presence of British troops in southern Iraq, Mr al-Maliki said: “We thank them for the role they have played, but I think that their stay is not necessary for maintaining security and control.”
He said he looked forward to a friendly relationship with the UK government.
“The Iraqi arena is open for British companies and British friendship, for economic exchange and positive co-operation in science and education,” he said.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown has signalled he expects troop numbers in Iraq to be cut next year.
It is thought the 4,100 British troops will be reduced as they take on a more diplomatic role.
Mr al-Maliki said he was concerned discussions over the continued presence of UK troops beyond the end of year had not yet begun.
The UN Security Council mandate authorising the presence of UK forces in Iraq is due to expire on 31 December.
They stayed away from the confrontation, which gave the gangs and militias the chance to control the city
A status of forces agreement is needed to allow their continued presence – but Mr al-Maliki said discussions over its renewal had not yet started.
The US government is in negotiations with Iraq over the status of its troops after the end of the year.
Without an agreement, or an extended UN mandate, UK troops would “lose their legal cover and have to leave Iraq”, he said.
“To avoid reaching the critical deadline, I wish for the negotiations between the two sides to start quickly to determine what elements of the force remain and their specialities,” he added.
An MoD spokesman said the decision to withdraw from Basra Palace was taken jointly with the Iraq government and the US on a “very sound military rationale”.
He said: “Our presence in Basra city was a motivating factor for a large proportion of the violence in Basra, and the decision to withdraw UK forces allowed the Iraqi Security Forces to develop lasting solutions to the security challenges in Basra.
“The transformation of the security situation in Basra is a vindication of that strategy.”
The government was in discussion with coalition partners and the government of Iraq over the status of forces agreement, he added.
“This is with a view to ensuring that any future UK military assistance to Iraq remains on a sound legal footing,” he said.