Al Asad Air Base (Iraq) : US President George W Bush paid a surprise visit to Iraq on 3 September as Britain withdrew the last of its forces from Basra city in the south after four and a half inconclusive years.
Bush, accompanied by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser Stephen Hadley, and senior aides, touched down at Al-Asad air base, the White House announced.
Already there were US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William Fallon, the commander of US forces in the Middle East, and General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq.
“This is the last big gathering of the president’s military advisers and the Iraqi leadership before the president decides on the way forward,” said Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesman.
Bush’s visit came just hours after British forces slipped out of their last base in the Iraqi oil port of Basra under cover of darkness and handed over control of the base to their Iraqi comrades.
The move came amid heightened tensions between Washington and London, the closest US ally in Iraq, and left behind a city in the grip of a brutal militia turf war.
“British troops began their withdrawal from Basra Palace at 11:00 last night (1900 GMT),” said General Mohan Farhad, commander of Basra military operations.
“The Iraqi army has now taken over responsibility and the area is off-limits. No one can approach except those who are authorised,” he said.
Iraqi soldiers were seen hoisting the Iraqi flag and posting guards outside the palace complex, as residents hailed the pull-out and called it a victory.
Farhad said the base would remain under Iraqi military control until Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki decides its fate.
In London a ministry of defence statement confirmed that all British troops had left the palace.
“The operation to leave the Basra Palace has now been completed successfully,” a ministry spokesman said, adding that it was over by around 0800 GMT on Monday and involved some 500 soldiers.
The evacuation of the troops from Saddam Hussein’s former palace on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab waterway to a desert airbase west of Basra paves the way for a full British handover of security in the region to Iraqi authorities.
The British defence ministry said this could take place in the autumn.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown stressed that British forces stood ready to “reintervene” if the security situation demanded.
“This is a pre-planned and this is an organised move,” Brown told BBC radio.
“We will discharge all our responsibilities to the Iraqi people; we will discharge our international obligations exacted in the United Nations.”
Residents of Basra cheered the withdrawal.
“This is a victory for honest resistance. It is a pleasure (to see the troops go),” said trader Ahmed Ali Omar, 35. “We had long been wishing for the occupier to go so that stability can be restored.”
Army officer Sadoun Hami was even more jubilant.
“W are happy to be rid of the British. They were harassing us in the streets and raided our houses and arrested our sons. We now want to see them out of greater Basra,” he said.
In recent weeks, the United States and Britain have been at odds over Iraq, with General Jack Keane, a former vice-chief of staff of the US Army, saying last month there was “frustration” in Washington at the deteriorating security situation in the British-run area.
But retired Major General Tim Cross, the top British officer involved in planning post-war Iraq, hit back, saying he had raised serious concerns with then US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld about the possibility of the country descending into chaos.
But Rumsfeld “ignored” or “dismissed” his warnings, Cross told the Sunday Mirror newspaper.
On Saturday, the head of the British army during the March 2003 invasion also launched a fierce attack on Washington over its handling of troubled Iraq since then.
General Sir Mike Jackson branded US post-invasion policy “intellectually bankrupt” and said Rumsfeld was “one of the most responsible for the current situation in Iraq.”
There are about 5,500 British troops in Iraq, most of whom are based in and around Basra, though that number is set to drop to around 5,000 by the end of the year.
They will now train and supervise local forces, supporting them if required.
The British troops leave behind a city in the grip of a brutal turf war between rival militias, and many policy experts now speak candidly of a British defeat in southern Iraq, warning of more chaos ahead.
And the Pentagon announced this week it was ready to intervene in southern Iraq to quell any unrest in Basra.
The International Crisis Group think tank warned in June that the withdrawal would be seen as a victory by the Shiite militiamen who bombard British bases daily and who control much of the city’s economic and political life.
“Basra’s residents and militiamen view this as not an orderly withdrawal but rather as an ignominious defeat. Today, the city is controlled by militias, seemingly more powerful and unconstrained than before,” its report said.
Almost 160 British soldiers have been killed in Iraq since the invasion four years ago.