British Troops Leave Basra

British forces complete their withdrawal from the southern Iraqi city of Basra. The departure of the last 500 soldiers at Basra Palace is another step towards handing the province over to Iraqi authorities and the eventual withdrawal of all British forces from Iraq.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Consider this an effort to accentuate the positive. President Bush is visiting Iraq today. And he's visiting a western province, Anbar province. That's an area that's seen some of the worst violence of the war. But it's also an area where American commanders have described progress in recent months. The president is traveling with his defense secretary and his secretary of state.

NPR's Corey Flintoff is covering the story from Baghdad. And, Corey, how is it that the U.S. is claiming it made progress in Anbar province?

COREY FLINTOFF: Well, really, the U.S. military has been promoting Anbar as a success story, in part because they say that the U.S. has won over the cooperation of Sunni tribal sheikhs who are now helping in the fight against al-Qaida. And, in fact, the military has scored some real successes here. If you remember, about this time last year, the Sunni towns of Ramadi and Fallujah were among the most violent insurgent centers in the country. U.S. troops in Ramadi especially were taking heavy casualties. And now those towns are relatively quiet.

The U.S. has recruited these tribal groups who were described as being fed up with al-Qaida. You know, they say that they don't want the rigid ideology imposed on their people. They have been turned off by the indiscriminate violence. And people say that al-Qaida overplayed its hand by trying to force these people to support them with a campaign of assassinations and bombings. So they say that that has brought them to fight al-Qaida and groups like it.

INSKEEP: Corey, how significant is it that the president would visit Anbar now?

FLINTOFF: I think it's very significant, because for one thing, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is in the process of getting his coalition together as parliament starts. The other big thing, of course, is that the top commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus and the U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker are due to present their reports on the success of the surge. So this could do a couple of things. It could, you know, give a brighter picture of what seems to be happening with the surge. And it could also pre-empt whatever bad news might be coming out in those reports.

If the president can visit Anbar, you know, it shows that, you know, this really intransigent place, you know, has been a success story. It's also drawing attention away from another significant story today, which was the British troop withdrawal from downtown Basra, the oil port in southern Iraq. That's a significant...

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about this - well let's talk about that for a moment, if we can. How significant is that, that the British are getting out of that town? And is this a victory or defeat?

FLINTOFF: Well, it's a cause for worry among U.S. commanders, because if violence breaks out there - and it very likely could because there are three major Shiite militias there vying for control. And Basra is in, you know, the sort of the neck of the bottle of Iraq's oil wealth. And it's also an important trade center. It's close to the border of Iraq. So control there is very important. And it's entirely possible that fighting could break out. If it does, and British troops are out of the picture, the U.S. may have to divert badly needed American troops to those areas, and that would leave them with a shortage in Baghdad and in the northern provinces.

INSKEEP: Okay, Corey, thanks very much.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Off in Baghdad, Iraq, where many things are happening today, British troops are withdrawing from the city of Basra and President Bush is traveling, along with his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Defense Secretary Robert Gates, traveling to Anbar province in the west. We'll bring you more as we learn more.

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