US 'will not stop' British pull-out at Basra Palace

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The Independent Online

British troops will withdraw to the last military stronghold in Iraq imminently, and will not be "swayed by domestic political considerations" – including relations with the US – senior government sources said yesterday.

Defence ministry insiders confirmed last night that Britain plans to stick to its timetable to pull out of its stronghold at Basra Palace "within days or weeks", despite misgivings from US military and government figures that local Iraqi forces are not ready to take control.

US commanders in Baghdad want Britain to delay the pull-out of 500 British troops, fearing the Iraqi security services are not sufficiently well trained or equipped to control lawlessness.

But in frank discussions between British and American military commanders on the ground, Britain has made it clear it believes the Iraqis are perfectly capable of taking over as early as next week.

The pull-out to Basra airport will have a significant impact on the safety of British troops who are the target of increasingly frequent attacks.

"There are plans afoot for Basra Palace – that is a matter of days or weeks. We now feel we are ready to move out and the Iraqi security forces to take over. There is a very, very close consultation with the American high command in Baghdad. If they are saying we think we need another two weeks or months, we will take that on board, that's part of the discussions. But in the end we will not be swayed by domestic political considerations," said one senior UK source.

Relations with the US over British tactics in Basra have been strained since Jack Keane, a retired US general who has just returned from Iraq, said that the British were more focused on training Iraqi troops than keeping control of "deteriorating security".

He compared the situation in Basra to "almost gangland warfare", provoking an angry response from the Army spokesman in Basra, who said the UK was giving the Iraqis "space" to take the lead in policing the city.