British combat forces are no longer needed to maintain security in southern Iraq and should leave the country, Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, has told The Times of London.

In an exclusive interview in Baghdad, al-Maliki also criticised a secret deal made last year by Britain with the al-Mahdi Army, Iraq’s largest Shia militia. He said that Basra had been left at the mercy of militiamen who “cut the throats of women and children” after the British withdrawal from the city.

The Iraqi leader emphasized, however, that the “page had been turned” and he looked forward to a friendly, productive relationship with London. “The Iraqi arena is open for British companies and British friendship, for economic exchange and positive cooperation in science and education.”

Of Britain’s presence in southern Iraq, 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. There might be a need for their experience in training and some technological issues, but as a fighting force, I don’t think that is necessary.”

Gordon Brown is expected to cut troop numbers significantly next year from the 4,100-strong contingent as Britain’s mission evolves to a more diplomatic presence. But even the status of British non-combat personnel is in doubt because negotiations on their presence beyond this year have yet to begin, al-Maliki said.

Click here to read the Times of London report.