Further British troop withdrawals from Iraq have been delayed indefinitely amid renewed rocket attacks on British forces in Basra, and a looming showdown between Iraqi government forces and Shia militias.
The Government has already admitted that a timetable set out by the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, for the process of disengagement from Iraq has slipped. The remaining force was to have been cut from 4,100 to 2,500 by next month, but this reduction will not now take place. Instead the Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne, is expected to announce this week that the next rotation of troops, in May, will see roughly the same number arrive as those they are replacing.
Units in Basra who were initially told that their tour would finish early have now been informed that they must serve the full term of their deployment. The Duke of Lancaster's battle group has had its return date put back by five weeks. Since British troops pulled out of their last base in Basra city last September, the remaining force has been concentrated at the only British base left in Iraq, at Basra airport.
A review of troop numbers will take place later this year. But on the fifth anniversary of the invasion by US and British forces, the security situation in Basra city means there is little chance of Britain pulling out any more soldiers before 2009, even though Basra province, the last of the four put under British control after the invasion, was handed back to Iraqi control before the end of last year.
Major General Mohan al-Furayji, the Iraqi military commander who took over, is planning a major operation this summer against the Shia militias whose battle for control of the city cost many British lives. Under its agreement with the Iraqi government, Britain is obliged to provide support for what the general is calling "the final battle for Basra". But the British government is unwilling to step back into the quagmire of Basra, and a full-scale deployment in the city is unlikely. Asked what form the British contribution to his operations would take, Gen Mohan said: "The British have promised help, and I am sure they will provide it, but what exactly they do will be up to them."
At present, British troops are providing training for Iraqi troops, including house-to-house fighting – a key ingredient in any attempt to retake Basra from the militias. The procedure is called Mout (military operations in urban terrain) by the Americans and Fish (fighting in someone's house) by the British.
Such an offensive could help to increase security for the British force at the airport. The pullout from Saddam Hussein's old palace in Basra brought a lull in attacks and a sharp fall in British losses, but recently the volume of mortars and rockets has increased sharply. Last month, RAF Sergeant Duane Barwood, of 903 Expeditionary Air Wing, died in a rocket attack, the first British fatality in hostile action around Basra since last August.
The airport base once again reverberates almost daily to sirens warning of incoming rocket fire and to the roar of Phalanx anti-missile guns. New alarm systems have been installed, and soldiers now sleep in "Stonehenges", beds semi-encased in concrete and sandbags, defences which are said to have kept down the number of casualties. Soldiers have escaped serious injury, despite rockets landing inside accommodation blocks.
Previously British troops would go into Basra city to counter the source of attacks. Senior Aircraftman (SAC) Harry McLeman, 21, of 2 Squadron the RAF Regiment, said: "In the past we would go out there and dominate the ground. We can't do that now under the rules, and that does lead to a bit of frustration." The British authorities insist that going back into the city would only provoke the militias, and the current rate of rocket and mortar strikes continues to be lower than when the Basra Palace base was still manned.
Major General Barney White-Spunner, the British commander in Basra, said the situation inside the city was also getting better. "No one is saying it is ideal, and there is a long way to go. But the indications are that the militias are losing some of their influence, and there are divisions appearing among them."
More than 100 women have been tortured and beheaded for supposed "immorality" in Basra in the past 12 months without anyone being brought to justice. But the police chief, Major General Jalil Khalif, who took over at the same time as Gen Mohan, has begun investigating the killings. "He is very serious about this and this is a sign of good progress," said Gen White-Spunner. "Gen Mohan is doing a very good job, and there is also economic progress. But no one pretends there is not a lot more to be done. As to the future numbers of British troops here, that is a matter for the Government."
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