Britain sits on sidelines as Iraq's Basra burns

LONDON Fri Mar 28, 2008 6:56pm GMT

Vehicles burn after a U.S. air strike in a parking lot in Baghdad's Sadr City March 28, 2008. REUTERS/Kareem Raheem

Vehicles burn after a U.S. air strike in a parking lot in Baghdad's Sadr City March 28, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Kareem Raheem

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LONDON (Reuters) - Britain ruled out deploying any troops to the Iraqi city of Basra on Friday, despite days of intense battles on the streets and signs Iraq's forces cannot cope with a growing militant uprising.

U.S. war planes dropped bombs on rebel areas in an effort to help the Iraqi army regain control of the city, but Britain said its 4,100 heavily armed troops, based at an airport a few kilometres (miles) from the centre, would not join in.

"This is an Iraqi-led operation and it's one that we have wanted to see since they took responsibility for security in Basra," said a spokesman for the Ministry of Defence.

"It's going to take time, but it shows the Iraqi government's political will in taking on the militants."

At least 120 people described by the Iraqi government as enemy fighters have been killed and 450 wounded in four days of intense fighting, which began after Iraq's prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, decided to take on militant groups in the city.

Britain is providing logistical support and treating some of the Iraqi army wounded on its base, Prime Minister Gordon Brown's spokesman said, reiterating the Iraqis were in charge.

Yet despite Britain's expression of confidence in Iraqi forces its troops have helped train, there are signs Iraq's army is struggling to contain what is a widening conflict.

Militants loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shi'ite cleric opposed to the U.S. and British presence in Iraq, have risen up in cities across the south in the wake of the crackdown in Basra.

Maliki had initially set a 72-hour deadline for militants to give up their weapons, but has now extended that deadline until April 8, indicating that he expects the offensive to take much longer than originally planned to quell the threat.

"PANDORA'S BOX"

The Pentagon described Basra as chaotic this week, but stopped short of any suggestion that Britain, which has overseen the city since 2003, was responsible for the state of affairs.

Since Brown took over as prime minister in June last year, Britain has been steadily drawing forces out of Iraq, looking to draw a line under a war that is unpopular in Britain.

The intention had been to reduce troop numbers to 2,500 in the coming weeks, but that looks less likely given the fighting.

"Citizens down there have been living in a city of chaos and corruption for some time and they and the prime minister clearly have had enough of it," said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell. "The city has always been dealing with a level of criminality and corruption that no one has been comfortable with."

Part of Britain's reluctance to get involved is that it could exacerbate an already bad situation, turning what is currently a two-way fight into a three-way fight or worse.

Ghassan al-Attiyah, an Iraq analyst in London, said Britain was right not to get involved, but said its presence was now so close to meaningless that all troops should be pulled out.

He said Maliki had opened a Pandora's Box by taking on Sadr's militants in a battle there was no guarantee he could win and that ultimately could play into the hands of Iran, which is building influence in southern Iraq.

"It's a bad development, a misjudgement, and I doubt Maliki will come out of it well," he said. "Do the Iranians want to see the Sadr group vanquished by the Iraqi government? I don't know, but if they are unhappy with it, they are going to react."

(Additional reporting by Andrew Gray in Washington; Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia)

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