Britain's exit strategy from Iraq is in danger of unravelling amid the fires and destruction in Basra and the bloody internecine Shia strife spreading across the land.
The withdrawal of British troops from the country depends on the success of Lieutenant-General Mohan al-Furayji, the Iraqi commander leading the battle against the Mehdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr. But Lt-Gen Mohan is in a precarious position, with reports suggesting he may be sacked.
At the same time, there are growing calls from Washington for British troops to go back into Basra city to help the Iraqi forces defeat Mr Sadr's Shia militia.
The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is said to be under tremendous pressure from some of his advisers to dismiss the charismatic and controversial Lt-Gen Mohan, a key figure in the deal under which British forces withdrew from Basra city, and who is regarded as the UK's main ally in Iraq.
The head of the police force, Major-General Jalil Khalaf, who is strongly backed by the British, is also said to be under a threat of dismissal, adding to the dismay in London. For the time being, Lt-Gen Mohan remains at his post as his troops continue fighting.
Another British soldier was killed yesterday – the 176th since the 2003 invasion – fighting alongside US forces against Shia militias in Baghdad, in a spiral of violence which began with the assault on the Mehdi Army in Basra early on Tuesday.
According to senior sources, the offensive was launched three months before Lt-Gen Mohan had wanted it to, and despite him warning that going in too early would result in the fighting spreading to other Shia strongholds. It was not the first time the general had been at odds with the Baghdad government. Mr Maliki had considered removing him from his post four weeks ago, but desisted after lobbying by the British.
British commanders were unaware of the operation until just before it began, although the Iraqi government's national security adviser, Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, had spent half an hour discussing the plan with General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, on Saturday evening. This was followed by Mr Maliki ordering two extra Iraqi infantry battalions to Basra that night.
Amid mounting tension over the offensive yesterday, General Jack Keane, a former vice-chief of the US Defence Staff and a leading proponent of American "surge" tactics, urged British troops to go back into Basra, which they left last September. However, the British Government is extremely wary of stepping back into the quagmire of and any large-scale redeployment is highly unlikely.
It is difficult to overstate the faith placed in Lt-Gen Mohan by the British. His name has become almost a mantra among officials, who have been heard to say "General Mohan will sort this out" or "General Mohan has decided this." Lt-Gen Mohan was appointed on a rolling three-month contract last July. According to Iraqi sources, the so-called "Iranian faction" surrounding Prime Minister Maliki would not give an 18-month contract to an avowedly secular commander in Basra. His current tenure runs out on 19 April. Mr Maliki is under pressure from those opposed to Lt-Gen Mohan to recall him to Baghdad at that time.
The British were said to be "comfortable" with Lt-Gen Mohan's plans to combat the militias in Basra some time in the summer after suitable conditions had been established.
Last week, Lt-Gen Mohan was in Baghdad, putting forward his case for establishing security in Basra before taking on the Shia militias. As well as additional resources and securing the Iranian border, it would have involved Mr Maliki announcing a weapons amnesty for the militias in June, possibly lasting as long as six weeks, as opposed to the 72 hours given when the offensive began on Tuesday.
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