UK relief at Mehdi Army decision

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The Independent Online

For British forces in southern Iraq, the announcement by Muqtada al-Sadr of a six-month suspension in hostilities is one of the best pieces of news to emerge for a long time.

If the radical Shia cleric's Mehdi Army does indeed hold to the ceasefire, it will allow British forces to carry out the impending withdrawal from Basra with the prospect of major bloodshed much reduced.

The Mehdi Army has been accused of repeated attacks in recent months on British forces in southern Iraq at a time when the UK is due to pull out of its last base inside Basra, at Saddam's old palace, and hand over the city to Iraqi authorities by the end of the year.

British forces would then be based at Basra airport in preparation for the withdrawal from Iraq next year, leaving behind a reserve force of about 3,000 which would only be activated in an emergency.

The handover of the Basra Palace base was due to take place in early August, but has been delayed at US insistence. American commanders hold that a withdrawal by the British would be a strategic mistake and provide a victory for the Shia militias.

But, in addition, there is deep anxiety among British commanders about the dangers inherent in pulling out of Basra Palace. There is a belief that the 500 British troops at the base may have to carry out a fighting withdrawal through the "ambush alleys" of Basra.

Mr Sadr's moratorium, if genuine, now offers the British a window to carry out the withdrawal and consolidate at the airport. If the truce does last six months, then it may even give the opportunity to pave the way for a full withdrawal.

But that scenario is predicated on the assumption that Mr Sadr has total control over his fighters. Past experience has shown that there are groups loosely affiliated to the Mehdi Army who have been prepared to go their own way. There is, also, a real bitterness among the Mehdi militia in Basra towards the British. UK forces have killed a number of Mehdi commanders. The Mehdi Army in the south also claims the British have been acting in concert with the Badr Brigade, a rival Shia militia.

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