Daily Telegraph: British forces in southern Iraq have been fighting a “proxy war” against Iran, the commander of the troops who withdrew from Basra Palace has said. The Daily Telegraph
By David Blair, Diplomatic Correspondent
British forces in southern Iraq have been fighting a “proxy war” against Iran, the commander of the troops who withdrew from Basra Palace has said.
While the Army has frequently accused Iran of stirring violence across southern Iraq by arming Shia militias, no officer has been as blunt as Lt Col Patrick Sanders, commander of 4th Battalion The Rifles.
He told the BBC that 5,500 British soldiers still based at Basra Airport could return to the city if called upon by Iraq’s newly trained security forces.
This may happen if Iraq’s army needs help against Basra’s Shia militias who Britain accuses Iran of arming and training.
“We are engaged, or we have been engaged, effectively in a proxy war with Iran and if that resumes then they (Iraq’s security forces) will need us to help,” Lt Col Sanders said.
He added that Basra was benefiting from a “lull in violence” and his troops had carried out a smooth and bloodless withdrawal from the palace in the city’s centre.
This took place in cooperation with Iraq’s British-trained forces and after talks with the Shia militias.
“There was a lot of potential for some quite serious violence and attacks on us. I’m delighted that it passed off without incident,” Lt Col Sanders said.
In July alone, Shia militias fired 750 mortar bombs at the British base in Basra palace.
Of all the armed groups faced by British forces in southern Iraq, the Jaish al-Mahdi, or Army of the Mahdi, led by the radical cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, was judged to be the most dangerous.
But Lt Col Sanders said it was “complete nonsense” to suggest that his troops had been defeated.
“The militias, and the Jaish al-Mahdi in particular, have thrown just about everything they have got at us. They have been unable to engage us in open fighting. We have been able to patrol around the city at will, on foot and in vehicles, any place or time of our choosing,” he said.
“It’s been dangerous, and the level of violence that we have been engaged in and the casualties we have suffered are testament to that. But the notion that this is a defeat is nonsense.”
British forces still hold overall responsibility for security in Basra province. But their primary task is now “overwatch”, not combat.
They will stand ready to assist local security forces, continue training Iraqi soldiers and protect the essential supply route linking American forces in the centre of the country with their depots in Kuwait.
Lt Col Sanders said their base at Basra Airport was not nearly as vulnerable as their old positions in the Palace.
“Basra is quiet and stable at the moment and it augurs well for the future. The militias are talking to each other and they are talking to the Iraqi security force leadership. That is all encouraging,” he said.
Lt Col Sanders’s troops are due to leave Iraq in late November and early December. He said they would be replaced, indicating that Britain’s military presence will continue into 2008.