British troops were quitting the southern Iraqi city of Basra overnight in a move that will end the British presence in the oil hub for the first time since the United States-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The pull-out is another step towards handing over Basra province to Iraqi control and paving the way for an eventual withdrawal of British forces from Iraq.
A British Ministry of Defence source in London said troops were pulling out of Basra Palace, which was built for Saddam, in the city centre and withdrawing to the vast British airbase on the outskirts of the city.
Iraqi soldiers were guarding the main gate into the palace on Monday but they declined to say if British soldiers were still inside.
Residents said they saw armoured vehicles leaving the palace in the early hours of Monday. Helicopters also took off and landed during the night.
British military officials in Basra declined to comment but a source at the Iraqi Defence Ministry in the city said Iraqi troops were inside the palace.
In a statement, the British Ministry of Defence said handing over the palace ”has long been our intention”.
”We expect the handover to occur in the next few days,” it said, adding British forces would retain overall security responsibility for Basra until the handover to provincial Iraqi control, expected towards the end of the year.
The withdrawal from the palace comes a week before US President George Bush’s top officials in Iraq present pivotal reports to Congress on the country’s security and political situation.
The testimony on September 10 by US commander, General David Petraeus, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, could influence future White House policy on the more than four-year-old war.
The pull-out also comes amid bitter recriminations between former US and British generals over the Iraq conflict.
Britain’s foreign and defence ministers published an editorial in a US newspaper last week defending Britain’s role in the face of suggestions in US media that British forces had failed in Basra and were set to flee.
The British forces reject criticism, by military analysts and some anonymous US officials, that they have allowed Iraq’s gateway to the Gulf to fall into the hands of Shi’ite militias and their withdrawal from Basra Palace signals their defeat.
Basra has witnessed a turf war between rival Shi’ite groups, including supporters of fiery cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and smaller Fadhila party, mainly for political supremacy and control of illegal oil traffic.
While residents say there is now a fragile calm between the groups, there are fears the British withdrawal will be accompanied by an upsurge in factional violence.
About 500 troops had been based at the palace, which was bombarded daily by mortar and rocket fire.
The withdrawal from the palace will lead to the reduction in the number of British soldiers in Iraq to about 5 000. All are based at the airbase, which is also attacked daily.
The British Ministry of Defence said that British troops would continue to train and support Iraqi security forces there.
Britain has already handed over three other provinces in southern Iraq to Iraqi authorities amid a surge in attacks that have claimed the lives of 41 British soldiers this year — the highest number of casualties suffered by the British since the first year of the war.
A riverside university city of more than one million people, Iraq’s second city is strategically vital as the hub of southern oil fields that produce nearly all of the government’s revenue, and the centre for imports and exports through the Gulf. – Reuters