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Withdrawal from Basra - Knight's Move by London

04.09.2007 10:35

Mikhail Bolshakov

The news about withdrawal of British troops from southern Iraqi city Basra evoked an ambiguous response of foreign politicians and international experts. In this connection they most frequently use word “defeat” and phrase “beginning of the end of the British military presence in Iraq”.

A WH spokesman said that President George Bush was indignant that the British troops left Basra at the moment when the White House asked Britain to delay its decision on Iraq until provision of official situation reports. These reports are to be prepared by actual Commander of the US troops in Iraq General David Pertaeus and US Ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker.

In return, British Prime Minister Gordon Braun insists that the withdrawal from Basra “is not a defeat”, but “a pre-planned and organized operation”. During this operation, 550 British troops handed over its fortified base in the Basra Palace (former residence of Saddam Husain) in the downtown to the Iraqi troops. Thereafter they joined the 5000-strong British force stationed in the last British base in Iraq near an airport of Basra ("Basra Air Station").

Henceforward, the British troops in Iraq will be in an "overwatch" state that means they will leave their base to fulfill combat missions only by requests of the Iraqi side.

According to the UK Ministry of Defense, the control over Basra will be completely and officially handed over to the Iraqi security force in November 2007. By this time, the British troops will complete their regular rotation, and the strength of the British contingent will be reduced down to 5000 men.

Prime Minister Braun also claimed in his interview to BBC that the strength of the British troops in Iraq will remain practically unchanged. In case of need they may perform “re-intervention” and return to Basra.

Nevertheless, Western observers believe that the withdrawal from Basra is “rather symbolical”, and note that it signifies the end of the British “physical” military presence in the Iraqi cities. Last year, the British forces already handed over to the Iraqi government three southern provinces of the country. Basra was the last remaining. According to BBC as quoted to Rory Stuart, a former official of the British Foreign Office and ex-deputy administer of two southern Iraqi provinces in 2003-2004, anyway Britain actually has failed to control over Southern Iraq the last 2.5 years.

Meanwhile the situation in the Basra city and Basra province remains rather complicated and unstable in terms of security. Local Shiah tribes fight each other for the power and control over the territory. The Basra province in known with its large oil fields, oil pipelines, important port facilities. Neighboring Shiah Iran has strong positions there.

Commending on the withdrawal from Basra, British military experts first of all refer to the military expediency of this step. For example, Charles Heiman, a well-known British expert in military affairs, believes that the base in the Basra Palace was very vulnerable due to its unreliable communications with the main British base in the Basra Air Station. The British troops often suffered casualties when delivering supplies to the palace base because combatants regularly attacked the convoys and sowed mines on the roads.

At the same time, observers note also serious internal political reasons of this official London move. The Iraqi War became very unpopular in Great Britain long ago, and significantly contributed to the early resignation of former Prime Minister Tony Blair nicknamed “American poodle” by his censurers for unconditional support of the US war in Iraq.

On this evidence, a new cabinet of Gordon Broun just cannot ignore the anti-war sentiments in the country. According to a recent public opinion survey, more than 40 per cent of British citizens speak for immediate withdrawal of the British troops from Iraq. Besides, the actual Government also feels increasing pressure of opposition in the Parliament.

It is known that Menzies Campbell, leader of the British Liberal-Democratic Party, required from the Government to indicate a particular deadline of British troop withdrawal from Iraq. Yet Braun refused to do it, his decision to withdraw the troops from Basra was perceived by the opposition as its first victory and “necessary step”.

According to Campbell, the withdrawal from Basra means “the end of the British troop role in Iraq”. “Shadow” Defense Minister Liam Fox claimed that families of British militaries expect new moves of the Government to ensure security of soldiers in Iraq and prevent new casualties”.

Of course, the British troops will not leave Iraq in foreseeable future, but the withdrawal from Basra is indicative of Broun cabinet’s intentions to gradually distance itself from the unconditional support of the USA in Iraq and provide for conditions for future phased withdrawal of the British troops from this country. Besides, the actions of the actual British Government signal to Washington that at this stage the internal political priorities are yet more important for Britain than the unclouded friendship with the USA.

The withdrawal from Basra in spite of its small significance in terms of military presence yet evoked a wide political response worldwide. It is particularly remarkable that certain countries of “the Third World” perceived this news as a sign of total global ebbing of the London’s positions. For example, President of Venezuela Hugo Chaves was not slow to utter threats to Great Britain to revenge the Falkland Islands War with Argentine in 1982 upon it.

"The Red Colonel" said in his radio address that should the British Navy return to the South Atlantics, it will be destroyed by means of the Russian and Iranian weapons purchased by Venezuela. “Today we would have been in position to kill the British Navy”, Hugo Chaves said.