British soldiers back in Basra as hundreds of Iraqi troops desert

British troops have returned to Basra, in a major change of policy, six months after withdrawing from the city because their presence was said to be provoking violence from the militias.

Around 150 UK military personnel with Mastiff and Warrior armoured vehicles have been deployed in the past few days alongside Iraqi government forces in the aftermath of fierce fighting against the Mehdi Army. The Ministry of Defence described the move as "a logical extension of our training role that will provide additional mentoring and monitoring to the Iraqi army". However, British troops have until now been kept strictly outside the city limits, with officials saying that stepping back into the quagmire of Basra would set back the exit strategy from Iraq.

The Americans have been pressing for UK forces, who are now stationed at the airport, to be more actively involved in operations in the city. The British return to Basra comes days after the Government announced that Gordon Brown's pledge to reduce troop levels by 1,500 this spring could not be fulfilled because of security concerns. The development comes alongside the disclosure that up to 1,500 Iraqi soldiers refused to fight, or deserted in the operation against the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Shia militia. The numbers, according to Iraqi and American sources, included dozens of officers and at least two senior field commanders. Iraqi officials said that Colonel Rahim Jabbar and Lieutenant Colonel Shakir Khalaf, a brigade commander and his deputy, have been suspended for declining to fight.

In addition to those who refused to follow orders, about 100 members of the Iraqi security forces simply changed sides, to the Mehdi Army. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has faced strong criticism over the operation, which he had led after flying from Baghdad to Basra and which ended, critics say, in a stalemate with an Iranian-brokered peace deal. The Independent revealed how Mr Maliki countermanded the plans of Lieutenant General Mohan al-Furayji, the Iraqi commander in charge of the south, who had wanted to wait until June to carry out the operation after a build-up of resources, economic projects on the ground and an offer of amnesty to the Shia fighters.

Gen Mohan had planned to target all militias rather than just the Mehdi Army. The offensive which took place concentrated, instead, on Mr al-Sadr's forces while the Badr Brigade, which has links to Mr Maliki's government, and the Fadilla group of Basra governor Mohammed Waeli were not targeted.

There are now signs of a future confrontation, with Mr Sadr asking a million Iraqis to march to the Shia holy city of Najaf to protest against the Americans. The radical cleric also accused the Iraqi government of breaking the agreement under which he withdrew his militia from the streets just over a week ago.

Any outbreak of violence is almost certain to spread to Basra and surrounding areas, and the British troops, in six Military Transition Teams, are likely to be involved while mentoring and directing their Iraqi charges. UK assistance to Iraqi forces so far has consisted of providing logistical support as well as artillery fire, from outside the city, on militia positions. American and British sources say that while some parts of Basra that had become "no-go" areas had been reclaimed by Iraqi troops, the Mehdi Army remains a potent military force. Some Shia soldiers and policemen who refused to take part in the mission against the Mehdi Army said they could not fight fellow Shias, while others feared that their families would be targeted if they took part. One officer, a lieutenant from Sadr City, said: "What they were asking us to do was to fire on our friends, members of our family. A lot of men were unhappy, we felt there should have been talks before the attack began."

Mr Maliki, however, said there would be firm action against those in the military who disobeyed orders. "Everyone who was not on the side of the security forces will go into the military courts", he said. "Joining the army or police is not a trip or a picnic. They swore on the Koran that they would not support their sect or their party, but they were lying."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...

Recruitment Genius: Housekeepers - Immediate Start

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...

Recruitment Genius: Head Concierge

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Content, SEO and PPC Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral