Europe correspondent Peter Wilson | September 04, 2007
A CONVOY of 550 British troops successfully completed a nervous overnight drive of 11km from one Iraqi base to another yesterday, then bunkered down for the fallout.
The transfer by tanks, armoured cars and helicopters of the last British troops in central Basra to the heavily fortified airport on the outskirts of the city will have an uncertain effect on one front: the security situation within the southern Iraqi city.
While few observers have confidence in the ability of the Iraqi army that has taken over the British downtown base to maintain order in the southern city, most of the insurgent attacks in Basra during the past year have been aimed at the British troops, so their withdrawal may calm matters. But the highly symbolic withdrawal of British troops from Saddam Hussein's former southern residence, which was the last British base in any Iraqi city, is certain to cause a new outbreak of hostilities on another front: the battle of the ex-generals in Washington and London.
With the US and British governments determined to retain their public unity, it has been left to retired military leaders in each country to vent the simmering tensions over the diverging military strategies and political priorities of the two main allies in George W. Bush's coalition in Iraq.
The British redeployment has long been planned but the growing number of complaints from US military experts on the edge of the Bush administration will be fuelled by the British decision to move just two weeks before the President is expected to declare his commitment to persisting with his surge of extra troops into Baghdad.
US commander in Iraq David Petraeus is expected to report that the surge has been worthwhile, making it awkward for Bush to have his British allies heading in the opposite direction and withdrawing from Iraqi cities.
Retired US army general Jack Keane, who was vice-chief of staff during the war and is still close to Pentagon thinking, claimed last week that the British had mishandled southern Iraq so badly that US troops might have to be redeployed there to fill a security vacuum.
Rejecting British assurances that London's strategy was being driven by conditions on the ground in Basra, Keane says the accelerating British handover of responsibility to Iraqi forces has much more to do with conditions in Britain than those in Iraq. Keane says Britain has never deployed enough troops to properly stabilise the region and allowed a relatively peaceful security situation to deteriorate into gang fighting between rival Shia militias linked to Iran.
Some Iraqi government officials have echoed US complaints that the British draw-down could threaten control of the region's rich oil resources and the land supply line from Kuwait to Baghdad.
General Michael Jackson, former head of the British Army, hit back last week saying the problem was that the US-led occupation plans had been half-baked and that former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld had adopted an "intellectually bankrupt" approach to handling Iraq after its invasion.
Another retired British officer, major general Tim Cross, who was the most senior British officer involved in post-war planning, backed up those criticisms on Sunday, saying he had warned the Pentagon before the invasion that its plans were inadequate, but he had been brushed off by Rumsfeld.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Foreign Secretary David Miliband are determined not to be seen to be cutting and running from Iraq, but they cannot conceal the fact that they, too, believe the occupation has been atrociously handled, and that in the long run their overstretched forces would be more valuably deployed fighting in Afghanistan.
While Bush insists that Iraq is the most decisive battleground against extremism, Brown has said that he sees Afghanistan as the front line, and Britain already has more than 7000 troops in Afghanistan compared with 5500 in Iraq. Defending the latest redeployment as just the latest step in a long-planned transition, Brown said last night that there were now 500,000 security forces in Iraq and about 30,000 in the Basra area, when soldiers and police were put together.
Britain had 45,000 troops in Iraq during the invasion and a peak of 18,000 in the occupation. Former prime minister Tony Blair reduced the British presence from 7000 to 5500 six months ago and this latest redeployment may allow that to go down to 5000. The British forces were responsible for four southern provinces and have already handed control of three to Iraqis, with Basra the only province in which the British have not yet stepped back to an overwatch role. Ninety per cent of the British troops moved long ago to the air base, the site of the US and British consulates, but the 550 soldiers who remained at the palace suffered almost daily mortar attacks and supply convoys from the air base faced particular dangers. Forty-one British troops were killed during the Iraqi summer, the highest fatality rate since the war began.
A total of 168 British troops have been killed in Iraq. The British Defence Ministry said yesterday that its forces would "retain security responsibility for Basra until we hand over to provincial Iraqi control, which we anticipate inthe autumn", most likely in October orNovember.
Brown said last night that when they eventually moved to overwatch, the British forces would remain in the country and be available to re-intervene in a crisis. The British Prime Minister has refused to set any timetable for the final withdrawal.
Doubts about the performance of those local forces were fed by the handling of yesterday's redeployment, which has long been planned but was supposed to stay secret to prevent the British troops becoming a target during the shift. It was the head of Iraqi security forces in the province, General Mohan Tahir, who released those plans by calling an unexpected news conference to announce that his forces were moving into the palace. Basra has not seen the extensive terror attacks that have devastated Baghdad, but most of the minority Sunnis have been driven out and turf wars have broken out between between rival Shia militias.
The International Crisis Group, the Brussels-based think tank headed by former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, says locals in Basra believe British forces have been defeated. "Relentless attacks against British forces in effect had driven them off the streets into increasingly secluded compounds," the group said in June. "Basra's residents and militiamen view this not as an orderly withdrawal but as an ignominious defeat."
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