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British troops begin pull-out from Basra HQ: BBC

The port at Basra
by Staff Writers
London (AFP) Sept 2, 2007
British troops have begun pulling out from their headquarters in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, the BBC reported on Sunday, citing the Iraqi head of security in the province.

Britain's domestic Press Association also reported that unidentified government sources had confirmed that the pull-out from the Basra palace headquarters was under way.

A spokesman for the British defence ministry declined to confirm the reports, but told AFP: "What is being talked about is an ongoing operation, and we will not comment."

The defence ministry later said in a statement: "Handing over Basra Palace to the Iraqi authorities has long been our intention, as we have stated publicly on numerous occasions. We expect the handover to occur in the next few days."

"The Iraqi security forces want to take full responsibility for their own security and the handover is a step towards that goal.

"UK forces will now operate from their base at Basra Air Station, and will retain security responsibility for Basra until we hand over to Provincial Iraqi Control, which we anticipate in the Autumn," it added.

The statement provided no further details on the timing of the handover.

There are about 5,500 British troops in Iraq, most of whom are based in and around Basra, though that number is set to drop to around 5,000 by the end of the year.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said that after handing over Basra palace, British troops will take on an "overwatch" role, and handle training and supervision of local forces, supporting them if required.

Almost 160 British soldiers have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.

Reports of the pull-out comes amid a British backlash over the United States' handling of post-invasion Iraq, with two top military commanders criticising Washington over the weekend.

Retired Major General Tim Cross, the top British officer involved in planning post-war Iraq, told the Sunday Mirror newspaper that he raised serious concerns with the then US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld about the possibility of the country descending into chaos.

But Rumsfeld "ignored" or "dismissed" his warnings, he said.

On Saturday, the head of the British Army during the 2003 invasion launched a fierce attack on the United States over its handling of troubled Iraq since.

General Sir Mike Jackson branded US post-invasion policy "intellectually bankrupt" and said Rumsfeld was "one of the most responsible for the current situation in Iraq."

The Pentagon said last week that the US military was ready to intervene in southern Iraq to quell any unrest as the British prepared to pull out from the base.

Brown, who took over from Tony Blair as British prime minister in June, has defended the involvement of British troops in Iraq, insisting last month that they had an "important job to do" in the war-torn country.

In a written response to a letter from opposition leader Sir Menzies Campbell, Brown also rejected a request for a predetermined timetable for the complete withdrawal of British troops in Iraq.

earlier related report
Second British general bashes US strategy in Iraq
The British backlash over the United States's handling of post-invasion Iraq grew Sunday as another top military commander blasted what he called Washington's "fatally flawed" policy.

The remarks came as the BBC reported that British troops had begun pulling out from their Iraqi headquarters in Basra, citing the Iraqi head of security in the southern province.

A British defence ministry spokesman declined to confirm the reports, telling AFP: "What is being talked about is an ongoing operation, and we will not comment."

Britain's domestic Press Association also reported that unidentified government sources had confirmed that the pull-out from the Basra palace headquarters was under way, and said it would likely be completed by midnight, British time.

In the latest sign of growing tensions between London and Washington over Iraq, the top British officer involved in planning post-war Iraq, said he raised serious concerns with then US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld about the possibility of the country descending into chaos.

But Rumsfeld "ignored" or "dismissed" his warnings, retired Major General Tim Cross, 56, told the Sunday Mirror newspaper.

On Saturday, the head of the British Army during the 2003 invasion launched a fierce attack on the United States over its handling of troubled Iraq since.

General Sir Mike Jackson branded US post-invasion policy "intellectually bankrupt" and said Rumsfeld was "one of the most responsible for the current situation in Iraq."

His comments were criticised by John Bolton, the US's former ambassador to the United Nations, who told BBC radio Saturday he had "read into a version of history that simply is not supported by the evidence."

The comments from both top officers came as the British government has been trying to soothe reported tensions with the United States over Iraq by insisting it will not cut and run from the southern province of Basra.

General Jack Keane, a former vice-chief of staff of the US Army, said last month there was "frustration" in Washington at the deteriorating security situation in the British-run area.

The Pentagon announced this week that it was ready to intervene in southern Iraq to quell any unrest in Basra.

The Sunday Times newspaper, citing unnamed government department officials, said Britain was preparing to hand over control of Basra to the Iraqi army as early as next month.

Around 5,500 British troops are in the south training Iraqi security forces, a figure that is set to drop to 5,000 by the end of the year.

"Right from the very beginning we were all very concerned about the lack of detail that had gone into the post-war plan -- and there is no doubt that Rumsfeld was at the heart of that process," Cross, the deputy head of the coalition's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in 2003, said.

"I had lunch with Rumsfeld in Washington before the invasion in 2003 and raised concerns about the need to internationalise the reconstruction of Iraq and work closely with the United Nations.

"I also raised concerns over the numbers of troops available to maintain security and aid reconstruction.

"He didn't want to hear that message. The US had already convinced themselves that Iraq would emerge reasonably quickly as a stable democracy.

Cross said that he was not alone in suggesting to Rumsfeld that life in Iraq post-invasion would not be as easy as he thought.

"But he ignored my comment. He dismissed it," he added.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who took over from Tony Blair on June 27, had been expected by some commentators to take a more doveish stance on Iraq.

But he has resisted calls for a timetable for the withdrawal of British troops, and a spokesman for his Downing Street office on Sunday responded to calls from opposition politicians for a full inquiry into the war by saying that there had already been three "pretty exhaustive" inquiries.

Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Defence Secretary Des Browne wrote a joint article in Friday's Washington Post newspaper saying it was "time to set the record straight" after weeks of "misplaced criticism."

"The question some people have asked is: have British forces failed in Basra? The answer is no," they added.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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