By Thomas Harding in Basra
The split between the UK and the US over Iraq was further inflamed last night after a senior British officer claimed troops could have withdrawn from Basra Palace five months ago if America had not issued a plea for them to stay.
The Army’s commander in Iraq said American pressure caused them to stay in the exposed outpost, after which 11 soldiers were killed and 62 wounded in months of intense fighting.
British forces were finally pulled out of the palace and back to Basra airport a week ago.
But Brigadier James Bashall, the commander of 1 Mechanised Brigade, told The Daily Telegraph that the force could have come out of Basra Palace in April “but politics prevented that”.
The senior officer’s comments come during a trans-Atlantic spat in which American officials have accused Britain of accepting defeat in southern Iraq and watching Basra descend into “all-out gangland warfare”. Brig Bashall said Washington’s request for British forces to stay in Basra came after a security operation codenamed Operation Sinbad had brought relative calm to the city.
”In April we could have come out and done the transition completely and that would have been the right thing to do but politics prevented that,” he said. “The Americans asked us to stay for longer.”
The decision to remain in Basra was a consequence of “political strategy being played out at highest level”.
As a result of the continued British presence, the last remaining barracks at Basra Palace came under assault, with soldiers fighting close quarter battles in some of the most intense urban warfare experienced since the Second World War.
British officers say that at the end of the six-month Operation Sinbad in April, the military conditions were right to pull out of the city.
Some order had been restored to Basra as British and Iraqi troops “surged” through the city district by district, rooting out corrupt police and bringing vital water and electricity reconstruction projects.
But Washington deemed the political conditions were not right for a withdrawal. Also, with no American headquarters or consulate physically established at Basra airport and with the CIA still keen to monitor Iranian activities, the Americans were extremely reluctant to leave the city under Iraqi control. Brig Bashall’s comments come as Gen David Petraeus, the head of coalition forces in Iraq, reports to Congress today on the results of the US troop “surge” in Baghdad.
The general could only report Basra as a success story, said Brig Bashall, because “down here we are ahead of the rest of country in transition to local control”.
The 44-year-old former Parachute Regiment officer, who has experienced three tours of Iraq and one in Afghanistan, gave a pointed response to American critics. “They are not down here, they don’t know,” he said.
It was “nonsense” to suggest Britain had been defeated militarily. “We have fought for last three months a very violent campaign against insurgents and we left on our own terms. We were definitely not defeated.”
The British strategy had been right because it was now time for Iraqi politicians and military leaders to be “self reliant”.