Leading article: The withdrawal that never was

The Defence Secretary, Des Browne, yesterday confirmed to a disconsolate House of Commons what had been mooted for more than a week: that the planned return of 2,500 troops from southern Iraq this spring had been placed on hold pretty much indefinitely. It was, he said, in a vintage piece of political understatement, "prudent to mark time at this stage". By "this stage" he apparently meant the recent eruption of all-out war between rival militias in Basra, and the uncertainty about how long Moqtada al-Sadr would keep his Mehdi army off the city's streets.

It is surely questionable, too, whether the troops would share Mr Browne's definition of "marking time" as a description of their enforced stay at the base near Basra airport. They have already returned to combat on one occasion; in support, it was said, of Iraqi army units. It remains to be seen how many more times they will be ordered into action before they are finally brought home. Their support role, from the air and from barracks, suddenly looks as if it could revert to a combat role with almost no further warning at all.

The one consolation for the troops may be the waves of sympathy that flowed towards them and their families from MPs incensed at what many saw as betrayal. And in one respect they were right: there had been little hint when the "drawdown" was announced last autumn that it was in any way provisional. It was rather seen as a sign from the new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, that he wanted to end British involvement in Iraq as soon as militarily and diplomatically feasible. The spring withdrawal of 2,500 troops would have halved our presence and signified that the disastrous Iraq adventure would eventually end.

That the troop reduction has now been put on hold, however, signifies less a breach of trust with the troops – although it is understandable that it might be interpreted in that way – than a fatal misjudgement on the part of ministers, and perhaps also commanders, about the real state of southern Iraq. And if it was not misjudgement, then it was at very least wishful thinking.

When quizzed about withdrawal, ministers repeatedly responded that provinces would be handed back as and when they were deemed stable enough to be policed by the Iraqis. But the more we have learnt about the southern provinces, and especially about the violence and crime that so quickly became endemic in Basra, the less well-founded the handover decisions seem to have been. British troops are now caught: they cannot withdraw, because the situation is too volatile. But they cannot seize back control of areas they have already handed over. It is a position that is unenviable – and, in the longer term, untenable.