British forces have pulled out of Basra Palace, the onetime southern residence of Saddam Hussein that became the symbol of the UK's role in the US-led invasion.
The British departure from their last remaining base inside the walls of Basra City, signalled their disengagement from the conflict and has highlighted a growing and public discord between Washington and London over Iraq, with the Americans claiming the move will severely undermine security.
The withdrawal itself took place with no fanfare or celebration. The troops from the 4th Battalion, the Rifles have been under a virtual state of siege, with constant rocket and mortar attacks, as they trained Iraqi forces to take over their duties.
Some of the 500-strong contingent who had already left had faced attacks on their way out, and the Ministry of Defence had attempted to keep the date of the evacuation confidential in an attempt to avoid what they term a full scale "fighting withdrawal".
The decision by the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army, which had carried out repeated attacks on British troops, to call a ceasefire is believed to have played a part in determining the pullout date from the palace.
The UK military will now be based at Basra airport, in the outer fringes of the city, while what remains of the British-controlled south is handed over to the Iraqi authorities. The bulk of the force will then pull out of the country, leaving a reserve unit that would only be deployed in an emergency.
The palace was originally due to be handed over to Iraqi authorities in early August. But that was delayed under pressure from the Americans who remain unhappy about the pullout. They say, it will expose their supply lines from Kuwait as they take part in President George Bush's last throw of the dice in Iraq, the "surge" in Baghdad and the central area of the country. The British decision to resist further American pressure is being increasingly seen by the Bush administration as a sign of Gordon Brown's desperate desire to disentangle his government from the Iraq imbroglio.
In turn, the criticism from the US has become more vocal and strident. American officials have charged that the British have "lost the south". British exasperation at what they consider to be "unfair" American criticism surfaced in an article in The Washington Post, in the names of Defence Secretary Des Browne and Foreign Secretary David Milliband, saying "recent weeks have brought a lot of misplaced criticism of the United Kingdom's role in southern Iraq. It is time to set the record straight".
Critics say it has been an inglorious retreat and resulted in the danger that Basra and its inhabitants have been left to the mercy of murderous Shia militias.
British officials, on the other hand, insist that the base had been handed over to the Iraqi authorities who were now capable of providing security for their own people. The vast preponderance of the violence in Basra, the argument runs, has been directed at the foreign troops and removing them would lead to a decline in the bloodshed.
The people of Basra face an uncertain future. Hassan Ibrahim, a 48-year-old teacher, said: " There was criticism of the British because people felt they did not do enough to stop the criminals, some of whom are even in the police. But a lot of people also say that things could get much worse if they leave. One thing we are uneasy about are rumours that the Americans may come to Basra to replace the British. We see what is happening in Baghdad and we don't want that here."
Basra by numbers
Number of days the conflict has been running.
655,000 Civilian deaths in Iraq since the conflict began
168Number of British servicemen and women who have been killed in Iraq
Britain sent 45,000 servicemen and women to fight the war in Iraq in March 2003
18,000British troops in Iraq in May 2003 at the height of the occupation
6,800 Total number of UK personnel deployed in Iraq theatre
5,500 Number of British troops presently in Basra
In the past four months there have been around 600 rocket and mortar attacks on the Basra airstrip, where British forces are based
£5bn Overall cost to the UK of war and occupation in Iraq
12,000,000 – or 76% of the electorate – took part in Iraq's elections in 2005 345,000 Members of the Iraqi Security Forces trained by British and US forces
One Victoria Cross has been issued in Basra, to Private Johnson Beharry
212km of new water pipe laid in a £9m project which employed 2,310 people at its peak
24,478 short-term jobs created
336 schools, refurbishments and supply projects
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