British troops completed a pull-out from their last remaining position in Basra city on Monday, paving the way for a likely further reduction of military personnel in Iraq.
Gordon Brown, the prime minister, said the pull-out reflected a shift from a “combat” to an “overwatch” role that included training of Iraqi forces.
“This is a pre-planned and this is an organised move,” Mr Brown told BBC radio, saying UK troops would be able to “reintervene in certain circumstances”.
The Ministry of Defence said the pull-back of 550 soldiers from Saddam Hussein’s former palace to Basra Airport was completed just before midday, Iraqi time, 14 hours after it started.
The move is expected to allow a reduction in British troop numbers in Iraq from 5,500 to 5,000, as anticipated in a speech by Tony Blair as prime minister in February. The date of departure for the 500 has yet to be set, an MoD spokesman said, and may not occur until November.
The UK retains responsibility for security in Basra province – the last under formal British control – but a spokesman said if conditions were right, a handover to the Iraqis could take place within months. Britain handed over control for security in three other provinces in July and September 2006 and in April this year.
Defence officials deflected questions on whether the force, also responsible for Iraqi troop training, helping to protect supply lines and providing emergency support for Iraqi forces, could be drawn down below 5,000 and still be viable.
The British pull-out leaves Basra in the control of the Iraqi military and police, charged with restraining the armed groups whose rivalries have spawned numerous assassinations, kidnappings and other acts of violence.
While there has reportedly been a lull in the violence that has claimed hundreds if not thousands of victims over the past two years, there is little evidence that the underlying causes of the bloodshed have gone away.
Basra’s political scene is fragmented, even by the standards of the Iraqi south, rent by conflicts between Shia Islamist political parties and movements.
The rivalry between the radical Sadrist movement and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, common throughout the Shia parts of the country, is complemented by other feuds involving the Fadhila party, which is strong in municipal politics, and the Thar Allah (God’s Revenge) movement.
Some of the parties have strong followings in the police, whose members have been implicated in assassinations and hostage-taking, and in local paramilitary guard forces. Extensive oil smuggling and quarrels over government appointments help to fuel the fighting between the groups.
Last year Baghdad declared a state of emergency in the city, authorising the military to set up checkpoints, and the British have staged operations aimed at purging the police of its most corrupt members.
Rocket and mortar fire attributed primarily to the Mahdi Army militia, one of the main groups targeted by the British, rained down on the riverside Basra palace as a response. But sources in Basra say that the city has become quieter since some militia leaders were released and a British withdrawal became expected. It is unclear whether bloodshed will flare up again now that the British have pulled out to the edges of the city.
The Iraqi military, sometimes backed by the threat of intervention by British or other foreign forces, has been able to put down occasional outbreaks of violence in other southern towns such as Amara or Karbala.