BRITISH moves to withdraw from Iraq will only make a difficult situation worse and put huge pressure on the Americans who remain, a retired US general warned yesterday.
General Jack Keane, who recently returned from Iraq, claimed the security situation in the British-controlled south was "deteriorating", and there was a "general disengagement" by the military in Basra.
He also suggested there was "frustration" among US commanders, who wanted to avoid having to fill any vacuum left if British soldiers withdrew. He claimed Britain had never had enough forces to "truly protect" civilians.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme yesterday, Gen Keane said the situation "has been gradually deteriorating". He added there was "almost gangland warfare" and the police lacked the ability to control that level of violence "so the situation is gradually getting worse".
Evidence of how dangerous Iraq remains came when a US Black Hawk helicopter went down in northern Iraq yesterday, killing all 14 US soldiers aboard in the deadliest crash since January 2005.
The general's comments came amid increasing speculation that Gordon Brown is preparing a phased withdrawal of the 5,500 British troops still in Iraq.
The Prime Minister will explain his plans to MPs in October but he has to balance domestic impatience over ongoing British involvement in Iraq with the need to appease US demands for help in the troubled country.
While Mr Brown has been much more cautious than his predecessor, Tony Blair, over Iraq, on a visit to the US he made clear his awareness of Britain's "responsibilities" in the area.
Asked about the consequences of Britain withdrawing its remaining contingent, Gen Keane said: "The situation will continue to deteriorate."
He added: "From a military perspective I know commanders are trying to avoid having to send reinforcements to the south from forces that are needed in central Iraq.
"That situation could arise if the situation gets worse in Basra if and when British troops leave.
"Now the situation has changed in the south, it is considerably worse, with the kind of gangland warfare that is preying on people."
Last week the head of the British Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, said forces were "certainly stretched".
His comments have been interpreted by some as adding pressure on Mr Brown to cut Britain's commitment in Iraq to allow more soldiers to be sent to Afghanistan.
The MoD is reportedly considering a major reinforcement of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, possibly sending up to 2,000 extra troops.
Gen Keane's remarks are the latest in a series of critical comments made recently by US officials, many anonymously, about Britain's commitment to Iraq.
Asked for his view on the British military's commitment in Iraq, Gen Keane said: "I think there is a general disengagement from the key issues around Basra. I would imagine that is where the source of frustration is. The Brits have never had enough troops to truly protect the population and we have found that out painfully in the central region as well."
He said the US political leadership was facing up to the fact that it needed to expand the number of ground troops in its military.
Meanwhile, George Bush compared the Iraq conflict to the Vietnam War, arguing that Vietnam had taught the US the need for patience.
He said: "One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like 'boat people', 're-education camps', and 'killing fields'.
"History reminds us there are lessons applicable to our time."
HOW BRITISH PERSONNEL NUMBERS FELL FROM A HIGH OF 45,000 AT TIME OF INVASION
• Some 45,000 British troops took part in the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. By May that year, there were 26,000 UK troops in the south-east and, by July 2003, the number had fallen to just 9,000.
• There are now just 5,500 British troops in Iraq. About 700 are due to leave in the next few weeks, with the remaining troops confined to defensive formations in the south, most around Basra airport.
These last troops are expected to begin a phased withdrawal over the next few months, handing over control of Basra and the southern region to local police and army units.
• A total of 169 British service personnel have died in operations in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.
• The southern area around Basra is the most profitable part of Iraq, producing more than 90 per cent of government revenues and 70 per cent of Iraq's proven oil reserves.
• Basra is largely a Shia area and many people there welcomed the fall of Saddam Hussein, much more so than in the Sunni-controlled areas of central Iraq. It was assumed this would make Basra and the south easier to control and although that happened to start with, the situation soon deteriorated, forcing British troops on to the defensive.