Senior military commanders have told the Government that Britain can achieve "nothing more" in south-east Iraq, and that the 5,500 British troops still deployed there should move towards withdrawal without further delay.
Last month Gordon Brown said after meeting George Bush at Camp David that the decision to hand over security in Basra province - the last of the four held by the British - "will be made on the military advice of our commanders on the ground". He added: "Whatever happens, we will make a full statement to Parliament when it returns [in October]."
Two generals told The Independent on Sunday last week that the military advice given to the Prime Minister was, "We've done what we can in the south [of Iraq]". Commanders want to hand over Basra Palace - where 500 British troops are subjected to up to 60 rocket and mortar strikes a day, and resupply convoys have been described as "nightly suicide missions" - by the end of August. The withdrawal of 500 soldiers has already been announced by the Government. The Army is drawing up plans to "reposture" the 5,000 that will be left at Basra airport, and aims to bring the bulk of them home in the next few months.
Before the invasion in 2003, officers were told that the Army's war aims were to bring stability and democracy to Iraq and to the Middle East as a whole. Those ambitions have been drastically revised, the IoS understands. The priorities now are an orderly withdrawal, with the reputation and capability of the Army "reasonably intact", and for Britain to remain a "credible ally". The final phrase appears to refer to tensions with the US, which has more troops in Iraq than at any other time, including the invasion, as it seeks to impose order in Baghdad and neighbouring provinces.
American criticism of Britain's desire to pull back in southern Iraq has recently become public, with a US intelligence official telling The Washington Post this month that "the British have basically been defeated in the south". A senior British commander countered, "That's to miss the point. It was never that kind of battle, in which we set out to defeat an enemy." Other officers said the British force was never configured to "clear and hold" Basra in the way the Americans are seeking to do in Baghdad.
Immediate American discontent is said to center on the CIA's reluctance to leave Basra Palace, an important base for watching Iran, which may explain why Britain has held on to the complex until now. But last week it was reported that US intelligence operatives were in the process of pulling out. Further ahead, the US is concerned over the security of its vital supply line from Kuwait, with some American commanders saying that if the British withdraw, American troops will have to be sent south to replace them. As the hub of Iraq's oil industry, Basra is also a tempting prize for the Shia militias battling each other for control.
There are fears that the bloody power struggle in Basra will escalate sharply if and when British troops depart, but commanders point out that up to 90 per cent of the violence is directed against their forces. They are understood to believe it was never the role of occupation troops to intervene in a "turf war" among factions from the same community, all of which have links to the government coalition in Baghdad.
Mr Brown will have to take these wider concerns into account, in reaching a decision that has political as well as military implications. At Camp David he stressed that "we have duties to discharge and responsibilities to keep" in support of the Iraqi government and "the explicit will" of the international community. The 15 September report on the progress of the security "surge" by the US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and the American ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, will be crucial to British as well as US military plans.
General Petraeus is expected to report mixed results, and to plead for more time for the surge to work. But the White House, under pressure from Republicans facing disaster in the 2008 elections, is likely to announce at least some troop reductions. British commanders, and some US commentators, believe that will enable the Prime Minister to spell out plans for a British withdrawal when MPs return in October, although the process may last well into next year.
© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited