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British ambassador explains troop movement near Iraq-Iran border

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The new British ambassador to Iraq said on Sunday that British troops taking up position near Iraq's border with Iran aren't preparing for military action against Iran, but were getting to crack down on weapons smuggling between the two countries.

Ambassador Dominic Asquith was responding to concerns raised by some Iraqi political and religious leaders, who've suggested that the British troops may be doing U.S. bidding as tensions rise over Iran's nuclear development program.

The concerns come as British forces have faced escalating violence in the once-quiet southern area around the port city of Basra, Iraq's second largest city. Last week, the British turned a base over to the Iraqi army and dispatched half the troops formerly stationed there to positions closer to the Iranian border. The base was subsequently overrun by Iraqi looters, who stripped it bare.

Asquith said the movement was designed to block the flow of arms, bomb-making materials and other "outside influences" into Iraq, particularly during a tenuous time as it pursues a program of national reconciliation.

"I would not draw any connection to the deployment of multinational forces and any deeper theory about what messages we are designing to give," he said during a news conference at the British Embassy in Baghdad.

Asquith, who's been in Iraq since 2004 as a lower-level diplomat, presented his credentials as ambassador last week.

U.S. officials worry that Shiite militias are receiving arms and explosives smuggled from Iran, a Shiite-dominated nation that could stand to gain by Iraq's continued instability.

Last month, a leaked memo by Britain's outgoing ambassador, William Patey, warned that "a low-intensity civil war and a de facto division of Iraq" was probably more likely than a transition to a stable democracy." The memo contributed to an on-going debate about whether Iraq, racked by sectarian violence pitting Shiite and Sunni militias against each other, was in the throes of civil war.

Iraq's prime minister said Sunday that violence was decreasing.

"We're not in a civil war. Iraq will never be in a civil war," Nouri al-Maliki said on CNN's "Late Edition."

Asquith said he does not yet see Iraq in a civil war, and said he thought progress was being made.

"There's no question there is sectarian violence inspired by people who are determined to fan the flames," he said. "We have made progress in attacking the security issue of Baghdad but the level of violence is deeply disturbing."

His comments came as a series of explosions killed at least 18 people and wounded dozens Sunday. A bomb planted in a minivan used as a public bus detonated near the pedestrian entry point to the Palestine Hotel in downtown Baghdad, killing at least nine people and wounding 18, police and witnesses said.

Another car bomb exploded in the parking lot of the government-run al-Sabah newspaper in a Sunni-dominated area of the capital, killing at least three people and wounding 30.


(Brunswick reports for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.)


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.