American general: leave Moqtada to us
Robert Fox reports on the senior American’s decision to take over the British effort in Basra
The senior American ground commander in Iraq has decided to take charge of coalition operations in Basra. Lt Gen Lloyd Austin (right), the American corps commander, is reported to have decided that British tactics in Basra have failed and that coalition forces, led by Americans, must back Iraqi army efforts to wrest control of Basra from the militias of Moqtada al-Sadr.
"The British policy appears to be in tatters," an adviser in Baghdad told me a few hours ago. Last August a deal was struck with the militias to allow the British to withdraw forces from inside the city to a base outside at the international airport. There the British troops have been in an 'overwatch' posture - mainly mentoring and training the 14th and 10th Divisions of the new Iraqi army and providing back-up to Iraqi troops and police if called for.
When Iraq's prime minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered Iraqi forces to break the grip of Moqtada's Mahdi army on Basra, the British did not send in reinforcements to help. The Iraqi army made little headway, and about 1,500 troops deserted. A ceasefire was then brokered between the militia and the army through Iran.
The British did provide air cover from fighters and unmanned surveillance drones, as did the Americans. But British efforts have been criticised as too little, too late.
Because of the recent violence, Gordon Brown's government has stopped any further reduction of British troops from the current 4,100. But they're still holed up at the airport. British commanders now believe their forces have to get more involved in keeping order in Basra, or pull out altogether - particularly as they are desperately needed in Afghanistan.
This can only be decided by Gordon Brown. It's a huge challenge. Retreat could too easily be seen as defeat and further damage his battered relations with Washington. ·
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