London, Aug.5 : The British defence forces were prevented from participating in a battle for the Iraqi city of Basra thanks to a secret deal between their government and the notorious al-Mahdi militia.
The Times quotes American and Iraqi officers who took part in the assault as saying that 4000 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.
US Marines and soldiers had to be rushed in to fill the void, fighting bitter street battles and facing mortar fire, rockets and roadside bombs with their Iraqi counterparts, they added.
Hundreds of militiamen were killed or arrested in the fighting. About 60 Iraqis were killed or injured. One US Marine died and seven were wounded.
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 deal, which aimed to encourage the Shia movement back into the political process and marginalise extremist factions, has dealt a huge blow to Britain's reputation in Iraq.
Under its terms, no British soldier could enter Basra without the permission of Des Browne, the Defence Secretary. By the time he gave his approval, most of the fighting was over and the damage to Britain's reputation had already been done.
The Ministry of Defence has never confirmed that there was a deal with al-Mahdi Army, but one official denied that the delay in sending in troops was because of the arrangement agreed with the Shia militia.
A spokesman for the MoD said that the reason why troops were not sent immediately into Basra was because there was "no structure in place" in the city for units to go back in to start mentoring the Iraqi troops.
Lieutenant-Colonel Chuck Western, a senior US Marine advising the Iraqi Army, told The Times: "I was not happy. Everybody just assumed that because this deal was cut nobody was going in. Cutting a deal with the bad guys is generally not a good idea."
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".
A senior British defence source agreed that the battle for Basra damaged Britain's reputation in Iraq.
US officials knew of the discussions, which continued until March this year. They facilitated the peaceful exit of British troops from a palace compound in Basra last September in return for the release of a number of prisoners. The arrangement fell apart on March 25 when current Iraqi Prime Minister Noor-al-Maliki ordered his surprise assault on Basra, catching both the Americans and British off-guard.