BAGHDAD, Iraq—Hours after the British turned over a military base to Iraqi control, looters picked it clean, driving up in trucks and making off with roofing, windows, and plumbing after clashing with outnumbered Iraqi soldiers.
About 1,200 British forces withdrew on Thursday from Abu Naji, a camp near Amarah in southern Maysan province. The base had been targeted repeatedly with mortar fire, and shortly after the British left, members of the Shiite-controlled Mahdi Army passed out pamphlets claiming credit for the British retreat. The camp had been targeted for mortar and rocket fire almost daily.
Looters arrived at the camp within hours after the final British soldiers left at noon on Thursday. Iraqi soldiers put up resistance and later fired on the crowds who had gathered. There were reports of some injuries for both Iraqi forces and civilians but no fatalities.
The looting was an indication of the tenuous hold Iraqi authorities have on the countryside, though a police spokesman for the region denied any looting occurred. An Iraq Army source said that as many as 2,000 people surrounded the camp at one point.
Spokesmen for the Iraqi Defense Ministry and the British military said the departure was part of what was a planned relinquishing of control to local Iraqi forces.
Major Charlie Burbridge, a spokesman for the British military, said the camp had become an easy target but denied militia activity had precipitated the move. British forces already had removed most significant equipment and had anticipated that leaving would attract looting in a region that suffers dramatically from poverty.
The looting that resulted, he said, "was more of an attempt to improve one's quality of life by making off with an air conditioner. The crux of the issue is economic, its not malice. Call it a peace dividend."
Burbridge said the mortar and rocket attacks had no impact on the decision to re-deploy the troops. In three years, the base had been under frequent mortar attack but there were no fatalities. "They were more of a nuisance than anything else," he said in a telephone interview from Basra.
Defense Ministry spokesman, Mohammed al Askari, would not comment on claims that militia forced the British to leave.
"All I can say is that the British forces left the place to the Iraqi army according to a deal with the Ministry of Defense," Askari said. "The deal dictated to deliver the camps to the Iraqi forces whenever these forces reach the needed level of readiness and ability to handle the security responsibilities. More locations and camps will be delivered in the coming two months."
About half the British forces that withdrew have been directed southeast to the border with Iran to combat weapons smuggling and to provide a buffer zone to deter militia activity before it reaches urban areas, Burbridge said.
(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this story.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.