Britain may hand over security responsibilities in the southern city of Basra to Iraqi forces by the spring, British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett told Parliament on Wednesday.
But officials said this did not mean that all 7,200 British troops would be leaving.
Beckett told the British lawmakers that Najaf would be the next southern city transferred to Iraqi control, probably in December, followed by Maysan in January.
“Indeed, the appalling reports of killings and kidnappings which we continually hear are a clear sign that the fate of that country is hanging in the balance,” Beckett said. “But as I have said to this house before, we owe it to our own forces and to the Iraqi people to hold our nerve in this critical period.”
Britain has the second-largest contingent in the U.S.-led coalition of foreign forces in Iraq, after the American military. Officials in Washington also are discussing whether to reduce or increase the number of U.S. troops as the death toll mounts.
Fifty-one U.S. troops have died this month, including a Task Force Lightning soldier assigned to the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, who was killed Tuesday in Salahuddin province by a roadside bomb that also injured three. Another soldier with the unit died Tuesday as a result of an injury caused by an accident. This morning, the U.S. military said three Marines died Wednesday in an attack in Al Anbar province.
Last month, 106 U.S. troops died, the highest toll since January 2005. At least 2,871 U.S. troops have died since the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
On Wednesday, most of the violence in Iraq took place in the capital and targeted Iraqis.
Police recovered 52 bodies from various Baghdad neighborhoods. All the victims were middle-aged men, killed with a bullet to the head or neck. None had IDs, authorities said.
In west Baghdad, gunmen killed a bodyguard of Iraq’s parliament speaker, Mahmoud Mashadani. The shooting followed an assassination attempt against Mashadani the previous day, in which a car in his convoy blew up in Baghdad’s high-security Green Zone.
Separately, gunmen killed Raad Jaafar, a journalist working for the Sabah newspaper, in Baghdad. An Industry Ministry official also was assassinated.
A bomb hidden beneath two bodies dumped near Haifa Street in central Baghdad injured two policemen who tried to recover the corpses. Bombings and mortar attacks killed two people and injured two.
In the western city of Ramadi, masked assassins driving an Opel killed four police officers. The attack came a day after a prominent Ramadi sheik was gunned down in Baghdad.
A Japanese news agency reported that an Iraqi court had sentenced an alleged Al Qaeda operative to death for the 2004 kidnapping and beheading of a Japanese hostage. Hussein Fahmi, who confessed to beheading 24-year-old backpacker Shosei Koda, said he also carried out 115 other beheadings, Kyodo News agency reported.
Roug reported from Baghdad and Stobart from London.