British commanders have brought forward the final closure of a base in central Basra, in an indication that more forces may be pulled out of south-eastern Iraq before the end of the year.
The Basra Palace complex, which housed the British consulate and United Nations staff as well as military units, was due to be shut down completely in August, but it is understood that the closure will take place within days. Its civilian occupants left several months ago, after the complex came under persistent mortar fire, but the British military retained a presence. Soldiers wounded on patrol were often taken there to be transferred by helicopter to the main British base at Basra airport.
The troops' final departure from Basra Palace will mean that no British forces are stationed within the city for the first time since 2003. Built on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab for Saddam Hussein, but never visited by the dictator, Basra Palace served as the temporary headquarters of the British forces immediately after the invasion. Its abandonment underlines the diminution of the British role in southern Iraq.
But despite the just-completed rotation of British troops having reduced their number to 5,500 from more than 7,000 at the beginning of the year, the loss of three soldiers in a week, bringing the total number of British deaths in Iraq to 153, shows their mission remains dangerous.
On Friday a member of the 4th Battalion The Rifles, who had not been named by yesterday, was killed when a roadside bomb destroyed his Warrior armoured vehicle. Two days earlier Major Paul Harding, a company commander from the same unit, died in a mortar attack on the Provincial Joint Co-ordination Centre in Basra, a location in the heart of the city where British forces work with the Iraqi military and emergency services. The third death, last weekend, was of Lance Corporal James Cartwright, of Badger Squadron, 2 Royal Tank Regiment, whose Warrior rolled off a bridge south of Basra.
"The withdrawal of British forces to the base at Basra airport has drawn the insurgents there, and it is coming under regular rocket and mortar fire, which has caused some damage though no casualties," a source told The Independent on Sunday. "Patrols are coming under small-arms fire almost every time they go out."
Rather than endure a constant trickle of casualties and an ever-reduced capacity to confront the militias now vying for control of Basra, commanders are likely to have told the incoming Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, during his recent visit that the British force should be reduced rapidly, with only training elements and a relative handful of other troops remaining. Many officers are said to believe an "overwatch" role - keeping troops in readiness for a major emergency - could be maintained from outside Iraq, either in the Gulf or as far away as Cyprus.
The posture of British forces is in ever greater contrast to that of their American counterparts. With the completion of the US troop "surge" having increased their numbers by 30,000 to almost 160,000, American commanders launched what was described as a major offensive last week in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, focusing on the provincial capital, Baquba. Yesterday US and Iraqi forces claimed about 90 al-Qa'ida fighters had been killed and two senior figures in the movement were captured, but there has been a high toll of Americans as well. The deaths of five US soldiers yesterday brought the week's losses to more than 25.
When the "surge" was announced at the beginning of the year, however, it was said to be aimed at gaining control of Baghdad and neighbouring Anbar province. And when US forces failed to encounter expected opposition in certain areas of the capital, the reason given was that insurgents had slipped to outlying areas, where an increase in violence was seen.
US commanders claim some success in driving a wedge between al-Qa'ida and Sunni tribes in Anbar, although the suggestion that weapons should be given to tribal militias has alarmed critics, who point out that many of the militias are just as hostile to the American presence in Iraq.
But the Diyala offensive appears to show that the insurgents will simply move into other areas whenever US forces seek to apply pressure to them, and the attempt to cordon off and clear the western half of Baquba city has stirred fears of a repetition of the American assault on Fallujah in 2004, which laid waste to the city. Yesterday it was reported that the second-ranking American commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, who is leading the Baquba offensive, had said 80 per cent of the top al-Qa'ida leaders had fled in advance. The same had happened in Fallujah, where only foot-soldiers were left behind to fight the Americans.
Some blamed too much public discussion of the operation in advance, including comments by the top commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, but Lieutenant General Odierno said: "Frankly, I think they knew an operation was coming in Baquba. They watched the news. They understood we had a surge. They understood Baquba was designated as a problem area, so they knew we were going to come sooner or later." He added, however: "I think they were tipped off by us talking about the surge, the fact that we have a problem in Diyala province."
Troops moving into Baquba last week also had a shock when they discovered what appeared to be a well-equipped al-Qa'ida field hospital, complete with oxygen tanks, heart defibrillators and other medical equipment. The find demonstrated the extent of the movement's support network in the city, and emphasised the difficulty the American-led force may have in holding the ground it has gained.
Much more may depend on the success or failure of the Baquba operation, however: with public discussion in the US of a reduction in forces next spring, when the presidential election campaign will be well under way, this may be the last chance General Petraeus has to show that the "surge" is working.
Further reading: 'The End of Iraq', by Peter W Galbraith, Pocket Books, £7.99Reuse content