Iraq: British retreat descends into chaos as Shia militia occupy police centre
Shia militia loyal to the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have scuppered an attempt by British forces to hand over the Basra joint police command centre to Iraqi police.
Iraqi police reportedly left when the Shia fighters arrived and began emptying the facility. According to witnesses, they made off with generators, computers, furniture and even cars, saying it was war booty - and were still in the centre yesterday evening.
The embarrassing episode, which comes as the British in Basra are preparing to move their remaining soldiers to the city airport as part of a planned withdrawal, once again highlights the strength of the militia in the city.
It further undermines Britain's hopes of a smooth transfer and gives the impression of a rout. Mr Sadr boasted in an interview with The Independent last week that the British had "given up" and were retreating because of the Iraqi resistance.
A small detachment of British soldiers working with the Iraqi police left the central Basra building on Saturday evening.
However, the British military disputed the reports about the Shia militiamen turning up yesterday, saying they had been in contact with the Iraqi general in charge of security in Basra, who denied that Mr Sadr's Mehdi Army was there.
The withdrawal leaves British forces with just two military bases in Iraq, Basra Palace and Basra airport, provoking speculation that the army may be preparing to accelerate its withdrawal to the fringes of the southern capital.
Britain has reduced its military presence to just 5,500 troops in Iraq and intends to pull these remaining forces back to the airport and hand Basra province over to Iraqi control, possibly this autumn. Read more