LONDON (Reuters) – British soldiers in Iraq were prevented from coming to the aid of their American and Iraqi allies during battles in Basra because of a deal between British forces and the Mehdi Army militia, The Times reported on Tuesday.
The newspaper said that under the terms of the deal — 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 Defense 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.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense denied there had been any accommodation” with the Mehdi Army, and said British troops had not been able to join the battle because no plans had been made.
“There was no “accommodation” which prevented UK troops from entering Basra, the reason why troops were not sent in immediately was because there was no structure in place in the city for units to go back in to start mentoring the Iraqi troops,” a spokeswoman said.
She also stressed that the operation, which was codenamed “Charge of the Knights” and took place in March this year, was “planned, led and executed by the Iraqis.”
The Times report said 4,000 British troops were forced to watch from the sidelines from almost a week while U.S. and Iraqi forces battled militants in the southern city because of the deal with the Shi’ite group led by the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
It also quoted a “senior British defense source” as saying that the deal had severely damaged Britain’s reputation in Iraq.
“(Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al) Maliki and the Americans felt the British were morally impugned by the deal they had reached with the militia,” the source said. “While we had a strategy of evasion, the Americans just went in and addressed the problem.”