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British Troops in Iraq Pull Out of Basra Palace

The highly symbolic pull out of British forces from Basra Palace to a nearby airbase is widely seen as the beginning of the end to British involvement in Iraq. For VOA, Tom Rivers reports from London.

After four years, Britain's presence in Iraq's second-largest city is no more. Just more than 500 soldiers were stationed at the complex that used to be a one of Saddam's palaces in the center of Basra.

Mortar attacks against the palace had become commonplace.

As the British troops packed up, responsibility for the base was handed over to Iraqi security forces.

British spokesman in Basra, Major Mike Shearer says the departure went off smoothly.

"There were no major incidents during the operation and all troops are now safely back at the contingency operating base and have been since mid-day today," said Shearer.

The departure of the troops was greeted with cheers by many locals who lined the streets. This man says he hopes the scene will be repeated elsewhere.

"My happiness would be full if they were to withdraw from all [of] Iraq, not only from Basra," said an Iraqi.

Here in London, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the withdrawal was not a defeat, but rather another milestone signaling more responsibility being handed back to the Iraqis.

"This is a pre-planned, and this is an organized move from Basra palace to Basra Air Station," said Mr. Brown. "This is essentially a move from a position where we were in a combat role in four provinces and now we are moving over time to being in an over-watch role."

Former NATO Commander, Colonel Bob Stewart says the British departure cannot really be seen in terms of defeat or victory.

"In military terms, yes we took the country and in political terms we might have lost it. So, it is sort of 50-50," said Stewart. "The fact of the matter is that we are withdrawing and Basra is still in a huge mess.

About 5,500 British troops are now stationed at Basra Air Base on the outskirts of the city, but 500 of those are expected to head home soon.

Prime Minister Brown has promised to update his parliamentary colleagues on current British thinking on Iraq next month. It is widely believed that more British forces will be pulled out in the coming months with some of them being redeployed to southern Afghanistan.