Sun, Feb 19, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Iran minister calls for UK troop withdrawal

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Iraqi children look at a British soldier pointing his machine-gun while conducting a security operation in the Iraqi southern city of Basra, on Thursday.

PHOTO: AFP

Tensions between the UK and Iran stepped up a notch on Friday when the Iranian foreign minister called on the UK to pull its troops out of Basra immediately.

"We believe that the presence of the British military forces in Basra has led to the destabilisation of the security situation in the city," Manouchehr Mottaki told reporters, denouncing what he described as human rights violations by British troops in southern Iraq.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran demands the immediate withdrawal of British forces from Basra," said the Iranian foreign minister, speaking through an interpreter during a visit to Lebanon.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair retorted that there would be no immediate pullout from Iraq, though he has hinted at starting a phased withdrawal during the first half of this year.

"British troops are in Iraq today under a UN mandate and with the consent of the Iraqi government. They stay as long as the UN mandate is in place and the Iraqi government wishes us to stay," he said.

"What I would say to the Iranians is that there is no point in trying to divert attention from the issues to do with Iran by calling into question the British presence in Iraq, " Blair said.

The prime minister was commenting during a visit to Germany, where he met the chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Britain and Germany, along with France, have been attempting over the past three years to negotiate with Tehran over its nuclear programme -- an initiative that is now at an end. On Friday Blair and Merkel appeared united in their position over Iran, with Merkel saying there was still a "window" to resolve the situation before the UN security council meets next month to discuss the next step.

Britain and Germany are strongly committed to using "all diplomatic means available", Blair said. The Iranians had overstepped the mark when they resumed their nuclear programme last month, Merkel added.

Defense officials in London suggested that Mottaki's demand could further aggravate relations in southern Iraq between local leaders and British soldiers.

Earlier this week, local leaders and police chiefs cut off links with the British army in protest against videos showing troops beating young Iraqis in Amara, a town north of Basra, two years ago.

While British military commanders say their relations with the new Iraqi army are good, they say relations with local police are "more complicated", with Shia militias infiltrating the police force.

They refer to rival Shia militias -- the Mahdi army, headed by Moqtada al-Sadr, and the Badr brigades, the military wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The Badr brigades, which Britain seems more concerned about, spent years in exile in Tehran before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

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