LONDON (Reuters) - A British newspaper said on Tuesday British soldiers in Iraq had been prevented from coming to the aid of American and Iraqi allies during battles in Basra because of a deal with the Mehdi Army militia.
The Times said 4,000 British troops were forced to watch from the sidelines for almost a week in March while U.S. and Iraqi forces battled militants in the southern city because of the deal with the Shi’ite group led by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
But Britain’s Ministry of Defence denied any secret deal or accommodation had kept its troops out of Basra, and said British forces had provided a “raft of military support” to the Iraqi operation.
Iraqi forces met strong resistance when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered them into Basra to combat the militias.
U.S. forces supported the Iraqi army but Britain ruled out deploying troops to Basra in the early days of the operation.
British forces pulled out of Basra city centre last September, withdrawing to Basra airport, and handed security control of oil-rich Basra province to Iraq in December.
The Times said under the deal with the Mehdi Army, which it said was aimed at encouraging the Shia movement back into the political process, no British soldier could enter Basra without the permission of British Defence Secretary Des Browne.
It quoted Lieutenant-Colonel Chuck Western, a senior U.S. Marine who advises the Iraqi army, as saying, “I was not happy”.
“Everybody just assumed that because this deal was cut nobody was going in. Cutting a deal with the bad guys is generally not a good idea,” he told the Times.
But the Ministry of Defence statement said: “The only limit on our involvement was Prime Minister Maliki’s rightful concern that the operation was seen by the people of Basra to be Iraqi-led.”
The Times report also quoted a senior British defence source as saying the deal had damaged Britain’s reputation in Iraq.
The Ministry of Defence said while it had always supported Iraqi efforts to reconcile with insurgents, “it is nonsense to suggest that this hampered UK support to the operation.”
Reporting by Kate Kelland and Adrian Croft; Editing by Luke Baker and Mary Gabriel