News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqBritain urged to keep soldiers in southern Iraq

Britain urged to keep soldiers in southern Iraq

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Sunday Telegraph: The US commander in Iraq has urged Britain to keep troops in the country amid growing fears that pulling out of Basra will cede control of Iraq’s second city to Iranian-backed militias. The Sunday Telegraph

By Tim Shipman in Washington

The US commander in Iraq has urged Britain to keep troops in the country amid growing fears that pulling out of Basra will cede control of Iraq’s second city to Iranian-backed militias.

General David Petraeus has made clear, in talks with British commanders, that he wants Britain, at a bare minimum, to maintain command over the south of Iraq, whether or not it provides the bulk of frontline troops in the region.

The ever tougher American stance piles pressure on Gordon Brown not to order a wholesale withdrawal of British forces next year.

Details of the discussions emerged as the US commander prepares to deliver his long-awaited assessment tomorrow to Congress of the US troops surge strategy in Baghdad.

People familiar with his thinking say Gen Petraeus will hail the success that US troops have had against al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq and a new alliance forged with former Sunni insurgents against the terrorists.

He told one ally: “Al-Qaeda is a little bit off plan. Things are not working out for them right now.”

Gen Petraeus will say he is ready to accept a small reduction in US troop numbers but not before the spring because of the slow pace of political progress. In a message to troops in Iraq yesterday the general said: “Many of us had hoped this summer would be a time of tangible political progress. It has not worked out as we had hoped.”

Gen Petraeus’s assessment of the situation in Basra will not form part of his written statement. But he is prepared to discuss the situation in the south of Iraq during a question-and-answer session on Capitol Hill.

Gen Jack Keane, the architect of the surge strategy, told The Sunday Telegraph: “The model for Basra that military commanders would like is that the [British”> headquarters stays in place. From that headquarters you have the intelligence capacity and experience that goes with being there for four years. For the near term, that’s what the coalition command would desire to have.”

He said “the political situation in the UK”, rather than the military situation on the ground, “is driving the reduction of force” planned in London.

A senior US senator issued a public demand last night that British troops launch a surge of their own to stabilise Basra or else risk leaving a vacuum that would enable Iranian-backed militias to make “Iran owner of a puppet state in the south”.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate armed forces committee who has himself served in Iraq, spoke out after a week in which British troops pulled out of central Basra, leaving a force at the airport.

The senator told The Sunday Telegraph: “I wish they would recalibrate. The south is a growing problem.

“It’s the next big problem to be faced. The British force in the south could do a great deal of good. We need a surge in the south.”

Senator Norm Coleman, who sits on the Senate foreign relations committee and who has just returned from Iraq, revealed that Britain is now under intensive diplomatic pressure from Arab countries to stay because regional powers are concerned that a British withdrawal from Basra will boost Iran.

He said: “They want us there. They want the coalition there. The Egyptians and the Saudis are resisting this drive to pull everyone out.

“Britain has been a tremendous partner and shouldered a lot of responsibility. The American hope is that they will stay.

“Their role has shifted as our role will shift. That doesn’t mean an end of the British mission.”

A former senior member of the Bush administration who still has close links to the White House said Mr Brown would be judged by his decisions in Iraq.

He said talk from the Brown government of pulling out was “so far just words” designed to “appease the left of the Labour Party”. He said: “What matters are actions.”

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