TOPICS > Nation

British Troops Complete Withdrawal from Basra Base

September 3, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT

JONATHAN RUGMAN, ITV News Correspondent: Moving on and out. Under cover of darkness, British tanks rolling through the streets of Iraq’s second-largest city. Iraqis reportedly cheered their departure, not that we were allowed to be there to see it, for these pictures were supplied by the Ministry of Defense. This operation shrouded in secrecy and high security, for like the end of many a British colonial enterprise, this was no victory, merely recognition that Britain’s time is almost up.

LT. COL. PATRICK SANDER, Commanding Officer, 4 Rifles: This marks the point where there will be no more British forces based in Basra City itself. So we will withdraw back to the contingency operating base out of the airport.

And this is the point, really, where we ask the Iraqis, the Iraqi security forces, to start to take the responsibility for the security of Basra themselves. I think that’s the right thing to do, because the longer that we’re here, the more they are — well, the less inclined that they are to run things for themselves.

A city under siege

JONATHAN RUGMAN: At Saddam Hussein's former palace, the last post sounded the end of four years of occupation. The British commander here said many of his soldiers had arrived as boys and were leaving as men after months of heavy fighting. And even the Iraqi raising his flag was wearing a flak jacket just in case.

For though this handover was cordial, preplanned, and expected for many months, the situation the British leave behind them is not one they wanted, for British troops leaving here have been living under virtual siege, in a city dominated by rival factions, militias and criminal gangs, where the police are widely derided as corrupt, where many ordinary Iraqis view today's pullback as the defeat of an occupying power.

MAHMOUD AL-BACHARI, Local Journalist: I feel happy about the British army withdraw from the center of the city, and my happiness will be full if they were to withdraw from all Iraq.

Replaced with neutral forces

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Yet the Iraqis replacing the British at the palace are not from Basra at all, in the hope of keeping them neutral. Still, the British have trained up to 14,000 troops in all, and they have faith in their Iraqi commander, General Mohan, who's no doubt relieved that last week's ceasefire by one of the biggest Shia militias has helped smooth the British withdrawal.

LT. GEN. MOHAN, Iraqi Commander, Basra (through translator): We told those who were fighting the British troops that the Iraqi forces are now occupying the palaces, so they have behaved, except for simple violations.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: In the last 24 hours, 550 troops have left the Basra palace complex to join the 5,000 British forces already at the airport, five miles from the outskirts of the city. Their mission now: to continue training Iraqi forces and to back them up when required.

Mistakes of the British

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Although some British forces are sleeping in tents, the airport's been reinforced to protect it from a regular barrage of mortar fire. How useful they can be remains to be seen, with the whole of Basra province expected to be handed over to Iraqi forces in the coming weeks. Iraqi forces have been trained, but according to the U.N.'s leading expert on nation-building, the British may have made a fatal mistake.

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI, Former U.N. Special Representative in Iraq: Where they probably got it completely wrong is in the training of the police. They were supposed to be training a national police, but that's not the fact what they did, is hand the police largely to the militias. The militias are all tied up some way, one way or another to Iran, but they're also fighting one another.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: The storming of Basra palace was a propaganda coup in its day, as was the sight of soft helmet patrols, amid talk of spreading democracy and peace. Yet 168 British personnel lie dead. A complete withdrawal seems unlikely for now. Not only might the Americans object, but if Basra's violence continues many bereaved might wonder what their sacrifice was for.