Page last updated at 18:44 GMT, Tuesday, 5 August 2008 19:44 UK

UK Basra deal claims 'not true'

Soldiers in Basra
A deal allowed UK troops to withdraw to Basra's airport last summer

The defence secretary has said reports British soldiers delayed helping Iraqi troops in Basra because of a deal with militiamen were "simply not true".

The Times said a secret pact with the Mehdi Army kept British forces on the sidelines for days while an attack was launched on the Shia group in March.

While officials denied the pact, but admitted a previous deal, Des Browne said he never constrained the military.

The Conservatives said the public had not been given the "full picture".

Responding to questions from shadow defence secretary Liam Fox, Mr Browne said: "The allegations made in the Times article are simply not true - there was no deal, never mind a deal preventing the UK military from entering Basra.

He said this had been made clear in a letter to the Times by Air Vice Chief Marshall Chris Nickols.

Questions are being asked about just how far this deal tied British commanders' hands during this year's Battle for Basra
Frank Gardner
BBC security correspondent

"I have the greatest confidence in the judgement of UK military commanders in Iraq and I would never seek to constrain their ability to make decisions," said Mr Browne.

Hundreds died in the Charge of the Knights - or the Battle for Basra - against the Mehdi Army, which follows radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr, until the Iranian-backed militia eventually withdrew.

The offensive - backed by US Marines - was overseen in Basra by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, after he vowed to "re-impose law".

US and Iraqi officers have accused Britain of initially standing back because of a secret deal cut with the militias last year.

The Army has admitted there was a deal last summer to allow their safe retreat from the city.

According to BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner, by the time Britain handed over Basra Palace to the Iraqi Army in September, the deal was done.

Frank Gardner's report on the row over the Battle of Basra

"Britain would release around 60 militia prisoners and stop patrolling inside the city. In return, the Mehdi Army agreed not to attack the British as they withdrew to the airport.

"Lives were saved but Basra was effectively abandoned. Now questions are being asked about just how far this deal tied British commanders' hands during this year's Battle for Basra," said our correspondent.

According to the Times an "accommodation" between Britain and the Shia group kept troops, based at Basra airport, out of the conflict for six days.

Under the deal's terms, it said, no British soldier could enter Basra without the permission of Mr Browne.

In a statement, the Ministry of Defence said the article was "wholly inaccurate" and "wholly misleading".

We negotiate with all sorts of groups; anyone who is willing to engage with the political process and reconciliation to move the thing forward
Major Tom Holloway

"No 'secret deal' or 'accommodation' with the militias kept us out of the city," it said.

The MoD said British forces provided the assistance that the Iraqi authorities sought from it during the offensive, including armour, artillery, airpower, medical and logistic support.

"The only limit placed on the profile of our support was Mr Maliki's rightful concern that the Iraqi security forces be seen by the people of Basrah to be those enforcing the rule of law in the city."

The British Army's spokesman in Basra, Major Tom Holloway, said any previous deal "had no bearing on the decision to go to the city".

Mr Fox said he had written to Mr Browne to ask "exactly under what circumstances the negotiations took place and whether or not they tied the hands of the British Army".

He said: "What would be unacceptable is if our troops were under effective political orders not to take risks because potential loss of life would be politically unacceptable.

"When the Iraqi army needed help, our forces should have been free to give that help as required.

"We have not been given the full picture."

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