U.S., Britain Differ on Southern Iraq Mission, Official Says

By Thomas E. Ricks and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Differences have emerged between the U.S. and British views of how to operate in southern Iraq, with U.S. officials encouraging the British to be more aggressive for as long as they keep troops there, said an American official closely familiar with Iraq policy.

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, met in London yesterday with top British officials and, in comments to reporters later, only alluded to the controversy, saying that "what we did discuss was the tasks" the British military should be performing in the south.

Some in the U.S. government worry that the British military, which recently withdrew from its last outpost in the south's biggest city, Basra, has made arrangements not to be attacked in exchange for not interfering in the factional fighting for control of the city. The U.S. view, the official said, is that, despite a troop drawdown, the British still have 5,500 soldiers stationed at the Basra airport and should at least try to ensure continued operations in the port there, which is key to the oil exports that are the basis of Iraq's economy.

Peter Harling, the Damascus, Syria-based representative of the nongovernmental International Crisis Group, whose June report on Basra painted a grim picture of conditions there, said of the British: "I do believe this was a negotiated withdrawal." One indication of that, he said, was that the militia of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has stopped attacking British forces in their remaining airport enclave. "They've achieved what they wanted," Harling said of Sadr's followers, "and now see the British forces as essentially defeated. They have a point."

The British appear to be unhappy with some of the derogatory comments recently made by people close to the Bush administration about their stance in Iraq.

But there is no disagreement on the overall strategy in the south, officials added, with both the British and the Americans believing that they should not interfere with the fighting among three Shiite groups in the south, and that they instead should simply let a victor emerge.

Debate over the mission in Iraq is likely to intensify in Britain next month, with calls for a complete pullout likely to grow when Parliament considers the British policy there.

The British have shown a real "haste to get out of Dodge, and boy, are they in a hurry," said the U.S. official. The British military, this official added, "would like to get out tomorrow," while the new prime minister, Gordon Brown, has somewhat different ideas.

Petraeus, in his public comments yesterday, spoke optimistically, saying that the eight-month-old U.S. counteroffensive in central Iraq is leading to progress and that violence in the country, overall, is down. There is "a reasonable way ahead," he told reporters at a news conference.

"Basra has plenty of challenges," Petraeus said. But he added: "Iraqi solutions are okay to Iraqi problems."

In his congressional testimony last week, Petraeus said that, except for a small number of Special Operations forces, he does not foresee deploying U.S. troops to the south to replace the British. The U.S. government, taking the view that the key to the future of Iraq is in bringing long-term stability to Baghdad, plans to keep as many troops in or near the capital as long as it can.

At the same time, some defense experts contend that Basra today may foreshadow the situation in Baghdad next year. "For all intents and purposes, we have no security presence down there," the U.S. official said.

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