GORDON Brown was last night under growing pressure to announce a full withdrawal of British troops from Basra after Iraq's prime minister declared that coalition troops could leave "any time they want".
Despite violence continuing to rage in Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki yesterday insisted his forces were in a position to take full responsibility for maintaining security, although he added the police and army needed more weapons. His comments were immediately seized on as providing the Prime Minister with a perfect pretext for dramatically accelerating the withdrawal of all UK forces from Iraq.
Brown was last night also urged to "cut and run" from Iraq in a hard-hitting report that concluded Britain had all but lost the war and should immediately begin planning for a "painful" withdrawal.
The Iraq Commission, which has taken evidence from senior politicians, soldiers and diplomats, said there was now no military solution to the problems of Iraq, and little hope of achieving the aim of a western-style democracy dreamed of by US President George Bush and former Prime Minister Tony Blair at the time of the 2003 war.
In a devastating conclusion, the cross-party group - led by Lord Ashdown, the man Brown unsuccessfully tried to bring into his government - said: "There are no easy options left in Iraq, only painful ones."
Britain still has 5,500 troops in Iraq, four years after Saddam Hussein was toppled. A total of 159 British soldiers have been killed in Iraq. Attacks have risen sharply this year, with British troops coming under fire 1,300 times in the six months to April, compared with 500 at the same time last year.
A White House assessment of progress in Iraq last week provoked calls among congressional critics of the Iraqi policy for a change in strategy, including a withdrawal of US forces. The Pentagon conceded that the Iraqi army had become more reliant on the US military, saying the number of Iraqi battalions able to operate on their own had dropped in recent months from 10 to six.
Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari immediately warned of the threat of civil war and the government's collapse if the coalition left. But al-Maliki, talking to reporters in Baghdad yesterday, appeared to contradict his minister.
He said: "We say in full confidence that we are able, God willing, to take the responsibility completely in running the security file if the international forces withdraw at any time they want."
He added that Iraqi forces are "still in need of more weapons and rehabilitation" to be ready in the case of a withdrawal.
Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell said it was time for Britain to pull out and leave the international community to help clear up. He said: "Any further training of Iraqi military and security forces must be done through the United Nations. It is to internationalise support for Iraq so that coalition forces can withdraw."
A spokesman for the First Minister Alex Salmond said: "These remarks certainly add to the calls for troops to be brought home."
One senior Labour supporter of the war said that the comments showed confusion in the Iraqi government. Ann Clwyd, the UK government's special human rights envoy to Iraq, said: "I'm astonished to hear this. It seems like a big dose of over-optimism. And they don't chime at all with what I have seen myself or with my conversation with the deputy prime minister just last night.
"He said that we should not withdraw our forces, and if we did so then al-Qaeda would be a greater threat, not only to Iraq but to the wider region too. Al-Maliki is right to say that some progress has been made, but there needs to be far more."
Meanwhile, the Iraq Commission, set up by think-tank the Foreign Policy Centre and Channel 4, presented itself as a British version of the Americans' Iraq Study Group, which last year called for a new approach and urgent action to stop "a slide towards chaos".
The commission report calls for British troops to immediately abandon offensive operations, such as patrolling the Iranian border and conducting operations against extremist groups. Instead they should focus solely on training the Iraqi security forces. Once the Iraqis are fully trained, all British troops should come home, regardless of the level of violence.
Sir Jeremy Greenstock, the former British Special Representative in Iraq, told the commission: "We thought we were going to achieve something good; that has not happened. It's actually time for a change."
He said British diplomatic efforts should now focus on getting international action to prevent Iraq being torn apart by civil war and becoming a base for al-Qaeda terrorists.
The commission was led by a cross-party group of senior peers - the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, the former Tory defence secretary Tom King and the former Labour Cabinet minister Margaret Jay - and also included former Blairite minister Stephen Twigg, ex-director general of MI5 Sir Patrick Walker, and ex-UK diplomat Sir Paul Lever.