British troops pull out of Basra base
IRAQI soldiers manned the gates of a central Basra base today after the bulk of British tanks and troops pulled out overnight.
The move will leave Iraq’s second-largest city without multinational forces for the first time since the US-led invasion in 2003.
Britain said the base - built on the grounds of Saddam Hussein’s elaborate palace complex - had been a magnet for insurgent attacks with daily mortar and rocket attacks, which Iraqi commanders said they hoped would now cease.
British forces will operate from Basra Air Station.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown today denied that British troops had withdrawn from Basra Palace as part of a “defeat”, insisting the move to Basra Air Station was an “organised” one.
Mr Brown said: “This is essentially a move from where we were in a combat role in four provinces, and now we are moving over time to being in an overwatch role. That is that we are able to re-intervene, we are able to give training... we are able to re-intervene in certain circumstances.
“The purpose of this has been to hand the security over from the British Army to the Iraqi security forces.”
Asked on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme if the move was a “pull-out in defeat... a retreat”, Mr Brown said: “Let me make this very clear. This is a pre-planned, and this is an organised move from Basra Palace to Basra Air Station.”
People on the streets of Basra today cheered the departure of the British.
“We reject any strangers and they are colonialists,” said resident Rudha Muter. “We are pleased that the Iraqi army are now taking over the situation - we as an Iraqi people reject occupation, we reject colonialism - we want our freedom.”
The pull-out from Basra marks the end of a full-time British presence in the city since 2003 and is bound to be seen as symbolic.
Basra is the last of five provinces in the UK’s sphere of operations in southern Iraq yet to move to local Iraqi control, with British forces left in an “overwatch” role.
Labour former defence minister Peter Kilfoyle said: “There is a political dimension to this and a political impetus and I quite sure that this is a prelude to the complete withdrawal from Iraq itself.
“I also think politically that Gordon Brown would also very much want to ensure that he is seen as the Prime Minister who takes the troops out of Iraq as opposed to having put them in.”
British forces have experienced increasingly deadly attacks in the Basra area, from roadside bombs and missiles. Twenty-two British servicemen have been killed in southern Iraq since the start of May alone.