Iraqis 'surrender' vacated British base in Basra to Shiite militiamen

SHIITE militiamen from the Mahdi Army took over the police joint command centre in Basra yesterday as UK soldiers withdrew from the facility and handed control to Iraqi police.

Police left the building when the militiamen, loyal to anti-US cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, arrived, witnesses said.

Last night, the MoD disputed the reports, saying it had been in contact with the Iraqi general in charge of security in Basra, who said the Mahdi Army was not there. But witnesses said the Mahdi Army emptied the building in early evening - taking generators, computers, furniture and cars - and remained there.

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The British Army had maintained a small number of soldiers at the command centre to help train Iraqi police. However, the British withdrew on Saturday night "in the framework of the plan for the handover" to Iraqi control of British positions in the city, said UK spokesman Major Matthew Bird.

Basra, Iraq's second largest city and a major oil hub, has seen frequent violence between Shiite militias vying for power, including assassinations of Iraqis and frequent attacks on British bases located around the city.

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