US 'delayed' British withdrawal from Basra

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British forces were prevented from pulling out of their last base in Basra City for five months because the Americans refused to move their consulate, according to senior military sources.

The US warned that a brigade of troops would be sent from Baghdad to take "appropriate action" to maintain security. The delay in withdrawal resulted in some of the fiercest fighting faced by British forces since the invasion of 2003, leading to the deaths of 25 British soldiers and injuries to 58 others, as well as dozens of Iraqi casualties. Two of the British dead were at the base, Basra Palace, while at least 10 others died in supporting operations.

Downing Street deemed it to be politically unacceptable for the Americans to replace British troops in Basra, as it would glaringly expose the growing differences between the two countries over Iraq. The British had decided that the end of March to early April would be an optimum time to hand over Basra Palace to the Iraqi authorities – after the completion of Operation Sinbad, aimed at militant groups.

But the Americans maintained that withdrawing the coalition presence from Basra, Iraq's second city, would pave the way for Iranian agents to move in. They claimed to have definite intelligence that elements of the al-Quds force were poised to infiltrate across the border from Iran when the British left. The British assessment did not support this scenario, holding that nationalism among the Shia population would supersede any affinity they felt with Shia Iran and that withdrawing from the palace would lessen violence.

A senior defence source involved in planning the pull-back to Basra airport said: "The decision to stay on was made in London; it was a political and not a logistical one. The Americans flatly refused to pull out their consulate and it was them informing us that they intended to send down a brigade which decided matters in London."

In the end the decision for the eventual pull-out, in early September, was made after a strong request from General Mohan al-Furayji, who had been sent by the government of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad to take over security in the south.

Yesterday, a member of the Iraqi government appeared to concede that the British troops had pulled back after suffering defeat to the Shia militias. "For me, I think the British couldn't do the job as they liked to do it, so for that reason they pulled out. They didn't control the situation, they couldn't improve the situation," the Human Rights minister, Wijdan Mikha'il Salim, told journalists in London. Pressed on whether the British had been defeated, she replied: "It's a hard question," before nodding.

A senior British commander in Basra recalled: "General Mohan sat in my office and said that our presence in Basra Palace was confusing Shia loyalties. Withdrawing from there, he said, would reduce violence and not increase it. That is what has happened so far since."

But Mrs Salim said that the same level of tensions had remained in Basra since the pull out.