MANCHESTER: Britain has reached a turning point in Iraq, the defence secretary said yesterday, hinting that the remaining 4,000 British troops based there could be withdrawn soon.
"The Iraqi armed forces, supported by British and US forces, have taken on and defeated the militia in Basra," Des Browne told the Labour Party's annual conference.
"We have reached a turning point in our involvement," he said, echoing Prime Minister Gordon Brown's statement in July that there would be a "fundamental change of mission" early next year, a phrase understood to mean a withdrawal of troops.
Britain has about 12,000 troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, a relatively high number for an army of less than 100,000.
Separately, a US soldier accused in the killing of an Iraqi detainee kept the man blindfolded and bound in the back of an armored vehicle for more than two hours before taking him into the desert where he was slain, a comrade testified.
Military prosecutors have accused 1st Lt Michael C Behenna of stripping the detainee naked, shooting him in the head and chest and then watching as another soldier set fire to the body with an incendiary grenade. He also allegedly tried to cover up the killing.
US military said it had freed another batch of detainees held in Iraq this week, bringing to 1,449 the number of people released during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
Separately, the American authorities are set to return more than 1,000 priceless Iraqi artefacts smuggled out of the country after the US-led invasion five years ago, the Iraqi government said yesterday.
Meanwhile, Kuwait has told the US it is concerned over proposed arms sales to former occupier Iraq, the Gulf state's defence minister said in comments published.
"We have informed the US of our fears over this issue and that... (Iraqi) forces should be defensive in nature," Shaikh Jaber Mubarak Al Sabah told Al Seyassah newspaper.
Iraq says Saudi Arabia will hand over 16 detained Iraqis as part of a prisoner exchange between the neighbouring countries.
The announcement comes amid indications of a decrease in tension between the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki and Iraq's predominantly Sunni Arab neighbours.
l A bomb blast near the main northern Iraqi city of Mosul killed five children and wounded three as they were playing near their homes, police and a doctor said.