London, Feb 28 Milton Keynes, the planning agency that created the eponymous town north-west of London from scratch in the 1970s, has been asked to remodel the Iraqi holy city of Najaf.

In 2004, Najaf in southern Iraq became the target of a full-scale US military assault aimed at ousting radical Shia insurgents. Many died in the three-week onslaught that devastated the centre of the historic Arabic city.

Najaf's roots are said to date back to the 8th century and the city attracts millions of pilgrims every year.

In what is thought to be the first commission of its kind in post-war Iraq, the Baghdad authorities have appointed a British firm of town planners to remodel the entire centre of Najaf.

While most of the residents of the holy city have probably never heard of Milton Keynes, the company assigned the job of reshaping Najaf was responsible for designing Britain's most infamous new town.

Much has changed since 1970, when Richard Llewelyn Davies laid down plans for a new settlement to cater for the growing number of families fleeing London in search of a better life.

By the 1980s, Milton Keynes had become a byword for the pros and cons of post-war British urban planning. It was to some a spacious, modern, landscaped town, and to others a dystopic, soulless home to shopping centres and skateboard parks.

Martin Crookston, a director of what is now Llewelyn Davies Yeang, is well aware of the sensitivities of the Najaf project.

"Millions of people are going about their daily lives and some of them are getting killed and hurt," he told the BBC, seeking to balance the widespread belief that Iraq is a daily bloodbath.

Crookston is working in coordination with Adec, a team of Iraqi consultants in Najaf.

The city has a host of pressing concerns such as security issues and water and electricity supply, an Adec spokesman told the BBC. "The first step is always to plan. Without clear master plans for Najaf, they cannot develop the city."

Critics will doubtless ask why an Anglo-Saxon firm should be charged with re-planning a historic Arabic city.

But Crookston has experience of the region, having overseen the restoration and redevelopment plans in the historic city of Salt, in Jordan, and the old Bastakia district of Dubai. The team is also working with an expert on Najaf architecture.

"It's too early to say what the new Najaf might look like, the plans will come towards the end of this year", said Crookston.

While respecting the city's authenticity, there was a balance to be struck with modernity, he said.

One problem facing planners was how to handle the annual deluge of pilgrims.

One option, says Crookston, would be to build a bigger bus station out of town and have shuttles running to and from the shrines In effect, it could be Iraq's first "park-and-ride scheme".