By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
LONDON, Sept. 3 -- British troops completed a withdrawal from downtown Basra on Monday, moving to an airport outside the city, their last base in Iraq. Prime Minister Gordon Brown called the move part of a British strategy to shift from combat to an "overwatch" role.
The departure leaves the center of Iraq's second-largest city in the hands of Iraqi security units in which Shiite militias have strong influence.
In an operation that began late Sunday, armored vehicles flying large British flags rolled out of the base in Basra Palace, a Saddam Hussein-era compound that the British had held since the invasion in 2003. In recent months, as disorder swirled in Basra, they had come under constant attack there, as did convoys supplying the base.
The 500 troops at the palace joined 5,000 other British military personnel about seven miles away at the Basra Air Station. The base now contains all the British troops remaining in Iraq, down from 40,000 after the 2003 invasion.
The British government is widely expected to bring more troops home soon.
"British people are happy the U.K. is removing them from harm's way," said Michael Williams, head of the transatlantic program at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London. "This is seen as George Bush's war."
He said the move meant that troops were "garrisoning themselves in" and "readjusting their approach . . . they are not abandoning, but trying to pull back in a supporting role." British military officials have said they believed the troops were targets aggravating the situation.
Although Brown has consistently voiced support for Britain's role in Iraq, he has been far less enthusiastic than his predecessor, Tony Blair, who was Bush's closest foreign ally in the war.
Brown has rejected criticisms that British troops are retreating in defeat. "It's essentially a move from a position where we were in a combat role in four provinces, and now we are moving over time to being in an overwatch role," Brown told the BBC on Monday. British troops would be training Iraqi troops and be able to "re-intervene" in certain circumstances, he said.
Hamid Majid al-Ameri, 39, who lives near the palace, said in an interview Monday that he was glad for the pullout. "Only now we can be secure from the daily shelling we were exposed to because of the presence of British troops. Our houses have been subjected to much damage, and we have lost many lives. Now we can feel safe, and we hope that many who fled from their houses can return back to their homes."
Majed al-Sari, an adviser to the Defense Ministry for the southern region, also said he was glad the British had left the city. "This withdrawal is a clear indication of the failure of British forces in dealing with security." He said it was an "opportunity for the Iraqi security forces to ensure efficiency in operations of security and law" and that "at the least, it will stop the daily shelling of this location which caused loss of lives of many Iraqi civilians living in the vicinity of these sites."
Rosemary Hollis, a Middle East security expert at Chatham House, a foreign policy research group in London, said the Basra region has become "gangland" territory. She said there is factional fighting over oil and smuggling operations. "It's a bad situation," she said, and one in which the British troops realized that they could not "appreciably change the situation."
"I leave Basra Palace with a mixture of sadness and great pride," Lt. Col. Patrick Sanders, commanding officer of the 4 Rifles Battlegroup, said in a statement as the unit left the palace. "We have fought hard and lost many good friends due to both death and serious injury."
The Basra Palace pullout had been planned for some time, but it comes at a moment of increasing public criticism of the war effort in Britain.
Two retired British generals who were instrumental in the British war effort, Mike Jackson and Tim Cross, have given harshly critical interviews in recent days. Jackson, who led the British military during the invasion, called U.S. planning for postwar Iraq "intellectually bankrupt." Cross, the senior British officer involved in postwar planning, said it was "fatally flawed."
Staff writer Megan Greenwell in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Basra contributed to this report.