Iraq: British soldiers leave Basra
British soldiers completed their withdrawing Monday from their last base in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, paving the way for new troop cuts. U.S. and Iraqi authorities have expressed concern that a broader British troop reduction could jeopardize the region's rich oil resources and the land supply line from Kuwait to Baghdad and beyond.
Some 550 soldiers were leaving the downtown Basra Palace, one of deposed President Saddam Hussein's former compounds, to join 5,000 other personnel at an air base 7 miles away on the fringes of the city. According to British defense officials, cited by the AP, the withdrawal was going well.
Major-General Mohan al-Firaiji, commander of Iraqi security operations in Basra, told reporters the pullout was completed just before dawn. "At 4:30 this morning the British forces completed their withdrawal from the presidency palace and the Iraqi army took responsibility for protecting the palace," he said, according to Reuters.
The Iraqi military dispatched hundreds of reinforcements to the city to prevent Shiite militias and criminal gangs from expanding their influence once the British have gone.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair reduced the number of British troops in Iraq from 7,000 to 5,500 in February and left open the option of pulling out some 500 more personnel once Basra Palace was handed back to Iraqis.
The British defense ministry said forces operating from Basra Air Station will "retain security responsibility for Basra until we hand over to provincial Iraqi control, which we anticipate in the autumn."
In Basra, Major Mike Shearer, Britain's military spokesman, told reporters: "I can confirm that an operation is ongoing, but we will not give any further details."