The Times of London reports in tomorrow’s edition that the British had struck a secret deal with Moqtada al-Sadr to stay out of Basra and not to oppose the Mahdi Army. When Nouri al-Maliki ordered the Iraqi Army to take control of Iraq’s second-largest city, the British never responded — which forced the Americans to shift forces to the south to support Maliki’s play:

A secret deal between Britain and the notorious al-Mahdi militia prevented British Forces from coming to the aid of their US and Iraqi allies for nearly a week during the battle for Basra this year, The Times has learnt.

Four thousand British troops – including elements of the SAS and an entire mechanised brigade – watched from the sidelines for six days because of an “accommodation” with the Iranian-backed group, according to American and Iraqi officers who took part in the assault. …

US advisers who accompanied the Iraqi forces into the fight were shocked to learn of the accommodation made last summer by British Intelligence and elements of al-Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia Muslim cleric.

The British strategy in the south has long been criticized for creating the power vacuum that Sadr exploited between 2005 and 2007.  The criticism assumed that the UK simply had failed to adopt the correct counterinsurgency doctrine, which the US also took too long to adopt.  This changes the parameters of the whole debate.

How long did the Brits take their orders from Sadr, and how many Iraqis had to pay the price?  One American officer hints at the costs:

Captain Eric Whyne, another US Marine officer who took part in the battle, said that he was astounded that “a coalition force would make a pact with essentially their enemy and promise not to go into their area so as not to get attacked”. He alleged that “some horrific atrocities” were committed by the militia in Basra during the British watch.

The British claim that the delay in entering Basra came from the lack of notice given by Maliki of his intentions.  With this kind of “accommodation” between the UK and Sadr, who could blame Maliki for wanting operational security?

The Brits have been excellent allies in the war against radical Islamist terrorists, but they have a habit of making “accommodations” that backfire.  Maybe they have finally learned that lesson.