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Basra Withdrawal

Nick AmiesSeptember 3, 2007

British troops withdrew from their Basra Palace base for the relative safety of their main compound outside the city Monday. Defense experts predict chaos and strained relations with the US once they leave Iraq for good.

A British soldier in front of a flag in Basra
Experts warn that the departing British will leave Basra to the gangs and militiasImage: AP

After four-and-a-half years of inconclusive combat, British forces completed the last withdrawal of troops from the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Monday. The 550 soldiers based at the city's palace joined the rest of the British contingent at its last remaining base in the country, the heavily fortified compound at the local Basra airport outside the city limits.

Iraqi troops under the command of General Mohan Farhad took control of the Basra Palace base in the early hours of Monday morning, although British military sources claimed that an unspecified number of British soldiers remained there. The sources gave no indication of how long they would stay.

Iraqi soldiers taking over from the British
Iraqi forces take control of the Basra Palace baseImage: AP

The evacuation of the British troops from Saddam Hussein's former palace on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab waterway to the desert airbase is seen as the prelude for a full British handover of security in the region to Iraqi authorities. The total number of British soldiers has already been reduced from 2003 invasion levels of 7,500 to 5,500.

PM defends withdrawal, denies defeat

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown defended the withdrawal from Basra in a statement following the successful pull-out and stressed that British troops stood ready to "intervene" if the security situation demanded.

The British Forces at the palace had become besieged in recent months with almost round-the-clock attacks on the base and attacks on supply convoys attempting to reach the palace from the airbase compound becoming more frequent and severe.

Gorden Brown with British soldiers in Basra
Brown said the withdrawal was pre-plannedImage: AP

The prime minister denied that the withdrawal amounted to a defeat for Britain, saying it had been planned well in advance.

"Let me make this very clear. This is a pre-planned, organized move," Brown told BBC Radio. "This is essentially a move from where we were in a combat role in four provinces, and now we are moving over time to being in an over-watch role."

Britain focusing on "winnable" war

Giles Merrit, director of the Brussels-based defense think-tank Security & Defense Agenda, said that concepts of defeat and victory are irrelevant when talking about Iraq.

"There was never going to be a victory in the classic sense, or a defeat, in Iraq," Merritt said. "I think it's just going to get more and more complicated and things will get tougher for the Iraqi people. There will be no winners, just more losers. For the British, this withdrawal is just a sign that they are desperately overstretched."

Merritt believes that the withdrawal is neither a snub to the United States over its handling of post-invasion Iraq nor a forced retreat. Instead, it marks a refocusing of a small army onto a war that is winnable and more important than Iraq.

"The British Army is at its smallest since 1842 and is hugely overstretched," he said. "It can't fight in Iraq and Afghanistan and it is widely agreed that Afghanistan is the war that must be done right."

If and when British troops turn their attention to Afghanistan, they will leave behind a city in the grip of a brutal turf war between rival militia. Many policy experts warn of more chaos ahead.

Basra left to the gangs and militias

British soldiers storming a prison
Basra has proven particularly hard to controlImage: AP

The International Crisis Group, a think tank specializing in conflict issues, warned in June that the withdrawal would be seen as a victory by the Shiite militias who have bombarded British bases daily and control much of the city's economic and political life.

"Basra's residents and militiamen view this as not an orderly withdrawal but rather as an ignominious defeat. Today, the city is controlled by militias, seemingly more powerful and unconstrained than before," its report said.

Giles Merritt said he believes that the British have every faith that Iraqi forces can handle Basra but that how the Iraqis react to being in control is impossible to predict.

"The British have trained these forces so know they have what is needed to cope," he said. "However, the future of Basra depends on the different loyalties of the Iraqi Army. Do they uphold the rule of law or remain loyal to whatever militia they are part of?"

Tensions rise between coalition partners

The pullout from Basra and the eventual total withdrawal of British troops from Iraq in the fall is likely to increase the pressure two-fold on the United States. The security situation is expected to worsen and if the Pentagon makes good on its promise to intervene in southern Iraq to quell any unrest in Basra, US forces will become even more overstretched. And, calls both at home and abroad for a complete US withdrawal from Iraq will increase.

"The writing has been on the wall for a long time in the US," Merritt added. "Policy makers have been openly talking about running down the commitment and if Basra erupts, then it'll make life a lot harder for the US. Washington is already very concerned but if the south burns it's hard to believe the US decision will be to send in more troops.

"The US would have much preferred to see the British pull out in six months to a year," he continued. "Politically, there will be tensions over this especially if the British withdrawal causes major security and policy problems for the US."

Armies trading insults and blame

The situation in Basra and the decision of the British to begin a phased withdrawal from Iraq has also caused rising tensions between the two armies.

Donald Rumsfeld in Iraq
The British blame Rumsfeld for the post-invasion chaosImage: AP

General Jack Keane, a former vice chief-of-staff of the US Army, said last month there was "frustration" in Washington at the deteriorating security situation in the British-run area.

Meanwhile retired Major General Tim Cross, the top British officer involved in planning post-war Iraq, hit back, saying he had raised serious concerns with then US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld about the possibility of the country descending into chaos but Rumsfeld had "ignored" or "dismissed" his warnings.

British General Sir Mike Jackson also branded US post-invasion policy "intellectually bankrupt" and said Rumsfeld was "one of the most responsible for the current situation in Iraq."