In a highly symbolic move, UK troops have started pulling out of a base in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. It is a major step towards control of Basra province being handed over to Iraqi forces, paving the way for an eventual complete withdrawal by the British military. The 550 soldiers leaving Basra Palace will now be deployed at a base near Basra Airport where the UK has some 5,000 troops.
Amid growing transatlantic strains over Iraq since Tony Blair left Downing Street, the pullout risks alienating Washington. But it is likely to prove politically popular at home for Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown. Speculation is mounting that Britain’s new prime minister could call a general election this year or next. And many political commentators believe he wants UK troops out of Iraq or at least the country’s involvement reduced before he goes to the polls.