London (AFP) Sept 10, 2007
Britain was prepared to withdraw its forces from the southern Iraqi city of Basra in April, but held off for five months after the United States asked it to stay, Britain's military commander in Iraq said in an interview published on Monday.
Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, Brigadier James Bashall, commander of 1 Mechanised Brigade, said that he wanted to leave Britain's Basra Palace base in April, something he said would have been "the right thing to do."
"In April we could have come out and done the transition completely and that would have been the right thing to do but politics prevented that," Bashall, 44, told the paper.
"The Americans asked us to stay for longer," he said, adding the decision to stay in the city was a result of "political strategy being played out at highest level."
On Monday, around 500 British soldiers slipped out of the former Saddam Hussein palace, handing over security to Iraqi forces and leaving behind a city in the grip of a brutal militia turf war.
The British military has now handed over four of the five bases in the Basra province to Iraqi forces, after four and a half inconclusive years of fighting since the US-led March 2003 invasion.
Britain's entire military force of 5,500 troops is now based at Basra's desert air base, 11 kilometres (seven miles) west of Basra city.
Of those 5,500, about 250 will be withdrawn over the next four weeks as part of a plan to reduce overall troop numbers there to about 5,000.
Responding to Bashall's interview, the Ministry of Defence said in a statement: "The decision to hand over Basra Palace was part of a conditions-based transition, developed in consultation with the Iraqi government and our coalition partners."
"We were able to hand over the Palace because of progress made and capability demonstrated, by the Iraqi Security Forces, particularly the Army. We handed Basra Palace over this month only when the conditions were right and the Iraqi forces were ready to take over.
"The government of Iraq decided in May it wanted to keep Basra Palace, and it then took time to form and train the Iraqi Palace Protection Force to the point that it could take over Basra Palace."
"The Iraqi government still needs some support to prevent the return of the terrorists," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told a news conference.
"We still have a long way. Iraqi forces have done a good job but we still need the support of the multinational forces. This is not the time to set up a timetable for their withdrawal."
Dabbagh's comment came a day before the senior US military and civilian officials in Iraq, General David Petraeus and ambassador Ryan Crocker, are to report to Congress on the effectiveness of this year's surge in US troop numbers.
Petraeus said in comments carried by the Boston Globe on Friday that he will recommend a gradual reduction of US forces beginning next spring.
"Based on the progress our forces are achieving, I expect to be able to recommend that some of our forces will be redeployed without replacement," Petraeus told the paper.
Only then will Iraq's government, which has so far been a "disappointment," take on its own security responsibilities to rebuild the nation, the report by the United States Institute of Peace said.
"The United States faces too many challenges around the world to continue its current level of effort in Iraq, or even the deployment that was in place before the surge," the report said.
A sustainable military presence "is likely no more than half the current level within three years, with a view to removing all units within five years, when all US bases should be turned over to the Iraqi government," it said.
"Only when the Iraqis and their neighbors perceive the real prospect of US withdrawal will they feel the need to take on greater responsibility."
The institute's report was released at the start of a week of drama in Washington as General David Petraeus and Baghdad ambassador Ryan Crocker, the top two Americans in Iraq, prepare to testify in Congress Monday and Tuesday.
They face a hostile barrage from Democrats over if and when troops can come home from a four-year war that has killed more than 3,700 US soldiers, tens of thousands of Iraqis and cost half a trillion dollars.
Petraeus will argue that the contentious strategy announced by President George W. Bush in January of surging 28,500 extra troops into Iraq has slashed sectarian violence and should be extended.
But he also is expected to accept gradual cuts in the 168,000 strong US garrison in Iraq, beginning early next year -- although that is unlikely to satisfy anti-war Democrats.
The stage was set for Petraeus by two other reports examined in high-stakes congressional hearings last week.
In one, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office concluded Iraq's government had failed to meet 11 of 18 benchmarks for political reform.
In a second study, retired marine general James Jones warned US-trained Iraqi forces would not be able to assume combat duties alone for at least 12 to 18 months.
The Institute of Peace report argued that Bush's surge has only "marginally reduced instability in parts of the country, most notably Baghdad, from the worst days of 2006."
The recommendations were issued at the institute's behest by several experts who sat on the Iraq Study Group, a high-profile bipartisan commission that last December appealed for a new course in the war-torn nation.
The study group called for diplomatic overtures to Iran and Syria in a bid to stabilize Iraq, a series of benchmarks to judge progress by Iraqi authorities, and a US shift away from combat and to training Iraqi forces.
Those recommendations were largely reprized by the Institute of Peace, which ran the Iraq Study Group, and which works to prevent international conflict and promote post-conflict development.
The Bush administration should focus on five key objectives as it charts its next steps in Iraq, the institute's report said. Those were:
-- Prevent Iraq from becoming a safe haven for international terrorists;
-- Restore US credibility, prestige and capacity to act worldwide;
-- Improve regional stability;
-- Limit and redirect Iranian influence;
-- Maintain Iraq as a single, independent state.
"The time has come to chart a clearer path forward, taking into account the regional and global contexts," the report said.
"Americans want an approach that protects US vital interests and can therefore be supported across a wide range of the political spectrum."
He also said that "hundreds" of Al-Qaeda in Iraq had been captured or killed last month.
"On September 3, a coalition air strike killed the terrorist responsible for the planning and conducting of the horrific attack against the Yazidis in northern Iraq on August 14," Rear Admiral Mark Fox told reporters.
Abu Mohammed al-Afri, also known as Abu Jassam, was killed in the air strike, 70 miles (115 kilometres) southwest of the northern city of Mosul, Fox said.
He said Abu Jassam was an associate of Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the Egyptian-born leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the local affiliate of Osama bin Laden's global jihadist group.
"Abu Jassam is no longer a threat to the Iraqi people," he added.
Entire families were wiped out after suicide bombers blew up four lorries packed with explosives in two villages inhabited by the ancient Yazidi religious sect in the northern province of Nineveh.
The bombers struck the villages of Qataniyah and Adnaniyah, razing them completely, in the deadliest attack anywhere in the world since the September 11, 2001 strikes in the United States.
Yazidis, who are estimated to number several hundred thousand worldwide, speak a dialect of Kurdish but follow a pre-Islamic religion and have their own cultural traditions.
They believe in God the creator and respect the Biblical and Koranic prophets, especially Abraham, but their main focus of worship is Malak Taus, the chief of the archangels, often represented by a peacock.
Followers of other religions know this angel as Lucifer or Satan, leading to popular prejudice that the secretive Yazidis are devil-worshippers.
The community has attempted to remain aloof from the vicious sectarian and political conflicts gripping much of the rest of Iraq, but in recent months relations with nearby Sunni Muslim communities have worsened dramatically.
On Sunday, Fox said the US military "surge" was applying pressure on Al-Qaeda in Iraq and in August troops had captured or killed hundreds of its militants.
"The combination of the surge, coupled with the increased capacities of the security force, the partnership with the Iraqi people, local tribes and sheikhs have significantly degraded Al-Qaeda in Iraq's control network, car bomb networks and their ability to produce propaganda through media," Fox said.
"Al-Qaeda sanctuaries are being eliminated or severely restricted. Iraqi and coalition forces are maintaining the initiative and the pressure" on the group, he added.
The US military's surge strategy was launched on February 14 to rein in the bloodshed in Iraq and allow space for politicians to step up the national reconciliation process.
The top US officials in Baghdad, General David Petraeus, head of US-led forces in Iraq, and ambassador Ryan Crocker, are to testify in Washington from Monday whether the strategy has worked or not in achieving its goal.
Over the past year the US military has encouraged local tribes to fight Al-Qaeda militants and the experiment has been fruitful in the western Iraqi province of Anbar, a one-time stronghold of Sunni insurgents.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Sunday the government was adopting a similar strategy in other provinces such as Diyala and Ninevah.
"We cannot copy the same experience because of different circumstances, but the idea is that tribes and people should cooperate," said Dabbagh who addressed the conference with Fox.
"This collective effort which results in expelling the terrorist groups was highly valuable to the Iraqi government."
The success seen in the Anbar province was also appreciated by US President George W. Bush during his surprise visit there on Monday where he said such gains if sustained could help in reducing the American forces in the country.
Source: Agence France-PresseCommunity
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