Plans to withdraw substantial numbers of British troops from Iraq next month have been abandoned after the explosion of violence in Basra on Monday night. The decision has dismayed military commanders, who are concerned about growing pressure on their soldiers.
"We are not planning a withdrawal," a senior defense source said yesterday, referring to a plan to hand over control of two southern provinces to the Iraqis.
The fragile situation in the south of the country was dramatically exposed when Iraqi police arrested two undercover British SAS soldiers on Monday and handed them over to militiamen before they were rescued. The incident came after months of concern that local security forces in the region had been infiltrated by radicals.
Senior defense officials admitted yesterday that far from improving, the security situation in southern Iraq might well get worse over the next few months. They referred in particular to the Mahdi army, a militia headed by the radical Shia cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr.
"Sadr is positioning himself as an Iraqi nationalist," a senior British defense source said. He added: "People want to use violence to create political power."
In July, the then commander of British forces in southern Iraq, Major General Jonathan Riley, predicted that Britain would hand over "two provinces, Maysan and al-Muthanna, this year and [the] other two [Dhi Qar and Basra] next year."
That hope was reflected in a secret memo sent by John Reid, the defense secretary, in July to cabinet colleagues. However, this is now regarded by military commanders and diplomats as hopelessly optimistic.
Military chiefs are concerned about pressure on the army as Britain prepares to take over control of the NATO-led peacekeeping forces in Afghanistan next spring.
However, Mr Reid insisted yesterday that Britain was "perfectly capable" of taking on that role without withdrawing any of its 8,500 troops in Iraq. He also insisted that Britain's strategy had not changed - it was to help the Iraqis "establish democratic control" and have "sufficient forces of their own to take the lead against terrorism".
The aim was to hand over to the Iraqis in the course of "the next year", Mr Reid said, adding that the withdrawal of British troops would "not be an event, but a process". He also said training the Iraqi police would be a "long process" and that Britain would not "cut and run".
Monday's rescue, meanwhile, has put a strain on the normally good relations between Britain and the Iraqi government. Haider al-Ebadi, an adviser to Ibrahim Jaafari, the prime minister, who is to meet Mr Reid in London today, told a press conference in Baghdad: "It is a very unfortunate development that the British forces should try to release their forces the way it happened."
The Iraqi government backed off after William Patey, the British ambassador to Iraq, yesterday made repeated calls to Mr Jaafari and Bayan Jabr, the interior minister, to make it clear the British government was not happy with the criticism.
In a press statement, the Iraqi government said: "The Iraqi government wants to clarify there is 'no crisis' as some media have claimed between it and the British government."
The Iraqi government also announced an inquiry into why the police authorities in Basra failed to implement a promise given by Mr Jabr to Mr Patey on Monday night that the two men would be released.
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