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The last British troops are expected to leave their base inside the city of Basra in southeastern Iraq sometime soon. They'll regroup at an airbase nearby. It's seen as the final step before a full withdrawal of British troops, which is expected before the end of the year. There's increasing concern that the British pullback will intensify a vicious turf battle between Shiite groups in the region, one which military analysts say could force the U.S. to deploy troops to that area.
NPR's Jackie Northam has the story.
JACKIE NORTHAM: When the last British troops leave their base at a palace compound in central Basra, it will hardly be in a blaze of glory. The compound regularly comes under mortar and rocket attack. The remaining 500 British soldiers do not patrol at night and supply runs to the garrison are described as suicides runs.
Retired Army General Jack Keane says that during the first part of the war, Basra was considered relatively secure, but now the city and surrounding areas are plagued by violence as rival Shiite groups vie for power. Keane says that situation is being exacerbated by the prospect of a British pullout.
Mr. JACK KEANE (Retired U.S. Army General): The vacuum is being filled by the reduction of forces and the reduction of security by some of the militia leaders that operate in the south and, of course, they're seeking influence and power and is deteriorating security situation.
NORTHAM: And it will continue to deteriorate says Keane as the Shiite factions battle for control of the mosques, the government offices and other entities. One concern is that the fighting could leave vulnerable among other things, a vital supply route for U.S. military operations. U.S. troops throughout central and northern Iraq receive supplies by truck convoys moving from Kuwait through the south of Iraq. Patrick Lang, the former head of Middle East intelligence for the Defense Intelligence Agency says the route could turn into a shooting gallery once the British leave.
Colonel PATRICK LANG (Retired U.S. Military Intelligence Officer): If you can't keep that supply line open from Kuwait to the north, then you risk starving the force up there of food, ammunition, fuel, oil and stuff.
NORTHAM: Lang says even though the number of British troops in Iraq has dwindled to about fifty-five hundred, they're still seen as an effective quick reaction force. If there was an attack on a truck convoy, they could go out and use force to keep the route open. Lang says the British were like an insurance policy.
Col. LANG: With them gone, some things are going to have to be done to reestablish that insurance policy, and looks like it's going to be a U.S. brigade that's going to be moved south to provide that assurance. So I think it's absolutely impossible that we would not have a force in the south that could guarantee that our supply lines stay open.
NORTHAM: There are also increasing concerns whether a power vacuum could affect installation such as the main river port in Basra and the vast southern oil fields. Greg Priddy, a global energy analyst with Eurasia Group, says so far there have been few attacks on the oil pipelines in the south even those that snake through the urban centers. Priddy says that could change if one of the factions is marginalized.
Mr. GREG PRIDDY (Global Energy Analyst, Eurasia Group): They're outside the system and they're no longer cut in on the spoils and they're under attack, you might see them have an incentive to, you know, take out that pipeline to put pressure on the authorities in Baghdad.
NORTHAM: The perspective withdrawal of a key ally comes at a bad time for the Bush administration as it tries to convince Congress and the public the U.S. military surge is working. American troops are already stretched thin in other parts of Iraq. But David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, says commanders in the field have every faith the Iraqi security forces will be able to pick up where the British leave off.
Secretary DAVID MILIBAND (Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Great Britain): I'm confident that our commanders in the field when they say now is the right time for the Iraqis to take responsibility, they are the right people to be saying that.
NORTHAM: But Pentagon officials indicate that Iraqi troops are not fully capable of standing up on their own and could do little to stop any widespread fighting in the Basra region.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
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