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Brits to leave basra { February 21 2007 }

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Iraqis welcome British and Danish pullout
February 21, 2007

by Karim Jamil 1 hour, 37 minutes ago

BASRA, Iraq (AFP) - Iraqis welcomed the news on Wednesday that Britain and Denmark are preparing to dramatically scale back their military forces in and around the unruly southern port city of Basra.

British forces have been based in Basra,
Iraq's second largest city, since the US-led invasion of March 2003, fighting insurgents and illegal militia forces bent on controlling the region's lucrative oil industry.

They have not faced the sectarian tensions that dog American attempts to impose order further north, as Basra is a largely Shiite city whose Sunni minority poses no threat to local powerplayers and faces little persecution.

But the 7,200-strong British contingent has nevertheless clashed with political and tribal militias. Its bases still come under almost daily mortar and rocket fire and more than 130 soldiers have died in four years.

British officers say they plan to pull out of three bases in the city itself and a logistics base in Shuaiba outside the town, and gradually concentrate their forces at their headquarters at Basra airport.

Prime Minister
Tony Blair announced Wednesday that British troop numbers in southern Iraq would be reduced from 7,100 to 5,500 in the months ahead. Denmark said its smaller force of 460 troops would be home by August.

Blair said, the British troops would remain "as we are wanted and have a job to do", but in fact, most Iraqis in Basra or in the goverment in Baghdad said they were already looking forward to seeing the British pull out.

Sami al-Askari, a Shiite lawmaker and political adviser to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, said: "The withdrawal is the wish of the Iraqi government and all the political powers in the country."

"We welcome any withdrawal of British forces from inside the centre of the city," said Hakim al-Mayahi, head of the Basra provincial security council, which has had a fractious relationship with the British.

An AFP reporter who visited British forces in Basra and at the airbase last month found both under almost daily mortar attack from militias in the city.

Nevertheless, British commanders feel that local Iraqi forces have made great progress under their tutelage and are approaching the point where they can ensure security with a minimum of support from coalition forces.

On Tuesday, British commander Major General Jonathan Shaw announced that the Iraqi army's 10th division, which is based in Basra, will henceforth receive orders directly from its own government rather than Britain.

"Today marks another important milestone on the road to Iraqi self-reliance," Shaw said.

Training Iraqi security forces has not all been plain sailing for the British, who have clashed with rogue elements of the Basra police and in December blew up the headquarters of the city's serious crimes squad.

Nevertheless, the feeling in Basra was that it was time for the British to go. On Monday, hundreds of Basrawis marched to the British consulate to demand the release of local detainees.

"We want to see British forces leaving as soon as possible. Security is in place in Basra thanks to the Iraqi police and army," said 27-year-old Ali Abdullah, who works at the city's electricity firm.

Law student Muthanna Ihsan, 20, agreed.

"Iraqi forces in Basra are ready and able to ensure security. Every Basrawi wishes to see all British forces leaving at one time not gradually," he said.

And Razzaq Nasir, a 58-year-old oil worker, was categoric: "There is no need for them. The British forces in Basra are a big problem for the Iraqi forces and for ordinary Basrawis."

Last year, when British troops pulled out of a base they had operated near Amara in Meysan Province north of Basra, looters stormed the compound and the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia, held a victory parade.

British commanders are hoping for a calmer handover in Basra.

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