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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

LONDON - Britain suffered its highest monthly death toll this May in southern Iraq since the US-led invasion after nine troops died in a wave of violence that the defence minister said Tuesday was a "major concern".

Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, however, said his government was taking steps to tackle the unrest and had sent envoys to the city, which has reportedly seen a spike of infighting between rival Shiite factions.

British Defence Secretary Des Browne reiterated that British troops would stay in southern Iraq until the Iraqi security forces were able to cope alone.

"It is undoubtedly the case that the apparent rise in violence is a cause of major concern," he told BBC television.

"We have, for example, over the last 10 days lost four brave British soldiers to explosives involving roadside devices," he said.

At the weekend, two soldiers were killed and two injured by a roadside bomb in Basra, while two weeks earlier two troops died in another roadside blast.

Browne said: "We keep these matters under constant review and we look carefully at the incidents and we look carefully at the nature of the explosive devices."

Turning to the matter of troop withdrawal, the defence minister said it depended upon when the new Iraqi government was confident that its security forces were ready to take over from the US-led military coalition.

"The decision on withdrawal will be based on achieving the right conditions but not on a particular timetable," Browne said, noting that such an artificial timeline would not be in the interests of the Iraqi people or British military.

Iraq's deputy prime minister admitted there were serious problems in Basra, where a majority of British troops in Iraq are based.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki "himself will be attending to the situation on the ground," Saleh told BBC radio.

"Basra is an important city for Iraq. We have had a reasonably stable situation there for a long time but ... problems within some groups have had unfortunate ramifications for the stability of the city," he said.

"We will be taking urgent measures in this regard."

Asked why the violence in Basra had worsened, Salah insisted that the situation had to be taken in context as the country struggles to rebuild itself following decades of hard-line rule under ousted president Saddam Hussein.

"We are trying to construct a democratic system of government that will be inclusive in the heart of Islamic Middle East," the deputy prime minister said.

Britain's bloodiest month in southern Iraq began with the deaths of five soldiers on May 6 when their helicopter crashed in Basra.

Among the dead was flight lieutenant Sarah-Jayne Mulvihill -- the first British servicewoman to die in action in the Iraq conflict.

British civilians were also caught up in the violence, this time in Baghdad.

Two British members of a US news crew died and a reporter was seriously wounded in a car-bomb attack in the Iraqi capital on Monday.

Britain's highest single-day death toll since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 happened on January 30, 2005, when 10 servicemen -- including one Australian who was serving with the British Royal Air Force -- died when their military plane crashed north west of Baghdad.

In total, 113 British soldiers have been killed since the war began.

Some 7,200 British servicemen and women are currently deployed in southern Iraq and neighboring Kuwait.

05/30/2006 10:43 GMT

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