Al-Dabbagh said the handover was decided because Iraqi forces were ready to take control of Basra.

He said: "Our security forces are at a good level" and Iraq's forces can manage "security in the province".

On December 9, Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, made a surprise visit to Basra and said the handover would take place in two weeks, on recommendation from Nuri al-Maliki, his Iraqi counterpart. 

Britain has about 5,500 troops in southern Iraq, and Brown said in October that troop numbers would be cut by more than half to 2,500 by early next year as Iraqis assume control of Basra province.

Failed mission

About 500 British troops handed over their base at the Saddam-era Basra Palace in September after Iraqi security forces took control of the city, and they are now all stationed on an airbase just outside the city.

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However, a British parliamentary committee, said recently that the country had failed in its original aim of bringing security to southern Iraq, and expressed concern about continued violence in the south and across the country.

The House of Commons defence committee said: "The initial goal of UK forces in southeastern Iraq was to establish the security necessary for the development of representative political institutions and for economic reconstruction." 

"Although progress has been made, this goal remains unfulfilled."

According to defence ministry figures, 173 British troops have been killed in Iraq since the US-led invasion of the country in March 2003, 

After the handover, the British troops are expected to provide specialist back-up to the Iraqi security forces, such as patrolling Iraq's border with Iran.