By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 25, 2006
BAGHDAD, Aug. 24 -- British troops abandoned a major base in southern Iraq on Thursday and prepared to wage guerrilla warfare along the Iranian border to combat weapons smuggling, a move that anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called the first expulsion of U.S.-led coalition forces from an Iraqi urban center.
"This is the first Iraqi city that has kicked out the occupier!" trumpeted a message from Sadr's office that played on car-mounted speakers in Amarah, capital of the southern province of Maysan. "We have to celebrate this occasion!"
Maj. Charlie Burbridge, a British military spokesman, said the last of 1,200 troops left Camp Abu Naji, just outside Amarah, at noon Thursday, after several days of heavy mortar and rocket fire by a local militia, which local residents identified as the Sadr-controlled Mahdi Army. Adopting tactics used by a British special forces unit in North Africa during World War II, 600 of the soldiers plan to slip soon into the marshlands and deserts of eastern Maysan in an attempt to secure the Iranian border.
The repositioning is the first public acknowledgment that forces from the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq have entered into guerrilla warfare to combat the insurgents and militias they have been fighting for more than three years.
The move also underscores both the rising power of Sadr's Shiite Muslim militia, which has clashed with American forces in an attempt to drive them out of the country, and burgeoning alarm over Shiite-ruled Iran's perceived role in exacerbating the sectarian violence roiling Iraq. U.S. officials have accused Iran of supplying bombs and other weapons to Shiite militias here.
The withdrawal sparked wide-scale looting at the base and then intense clashes late Thursday between Iraqi army forces guarding the camp and unknown attackers, a military intelligence official said. The volatile situation worsened when the 2nd Battalion of the Iraqi army's 4th Brigade mutinied and attacked a local military outpost, said the official, who spoke on condition that his name not be used.
The British soldiers, members of the Queen's Royal Hussars, are preparing to trade their heavy Challenger 2 tanks and Warrior fighting vehicles for lightweight Land Rovers, Burbridge said. They expect to become a flexible, mobile force with no fixed base and receive supplies by airdrops.
"The Americans believe there is an inflow of IEDs and weapons across the border with Iran," said Burbridge, referring to improvised explosive devices, in a telephone interview from Basra. "Our first objective is to go and find out if that is the case. If that is true, we'll be able to disrupt the flow." He said the second goal was to train Iraqi border guards.
Burbridge acknowledged that constant shelling of the base in Amarah by militia forces, including 17 mortar rounds fired in recent days that wounded three people, were part of the reason the camp closed.
"By no longer presenting a static target, we reduce the ability of the militias to strike us," he said. But he rejected Sadr's claim that the British had been defeated and pushed out of Amarah. "It's very difficult to claim a victory without causing significant casualties."
The mood was quite different in Amarah, where jubilant residents flocked to Sadr's office to offer their congratulations. Drivers in the street honked their car horns in celebration. Some prepared to take to the streets to rejoice.
"Today is a holiday in our province," said Abu Mustaffa, an unemployed 45-year-old from the city's al-Hussein district. "Thanks be to God!"
Abu Mustaffa said anger toward the British reached fever pitch in recent days after soldiers entered a mosque and arrested several local men. The provincial government is controlled by Sadr's movement, he said.
Elsewhere in Iraq, bombings and shootings killed at least 14 Iraqis and two U.S. soldiers Thursday, the Associated Press reported.
In Baghdad, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East said a new security plan was helping to curb violence in the capital. "I believe there is a danger of civil war in Iraq, but only a danger. I think Iraq's far from it," Gen. John P. Abizaid told the AP. "I think that there's been great progress in the security front here recently in Baghdad."
Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim, Naseer Nouri, Saad al-Izzi and other Washington Post staff members contributed to this report.