BAGHDAD (Reuters) - British troops abandoned their base in Iraq's southern Maysan province on Thursday, which has been under almost nightly attack, and prepared to head deep into the marshlands along the Iranian border to hunt gun smugglers.
Soldiers of the Queen's Royal Hussars are to adopt tactics first pioneered by the famed Long Range Desert Group, a roving special forces unit that fought Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's German Afrika Korps in North Africa during World War Two.
The 600 combat troops are giving up their Challenger tanks and Warrior armoured fighting vehicles in favour of stripped-down Landrovers armed with machineguns. The units will remain constantly on the move and be resupplied by air drops.
"We are repositioning our forces to focus on border areas and deal with reports of smuggling of weapons and improvised explosive devices from across the border," British military spokesman Major Charlie Burbridge told Reuters.
"We are going to do what the Long Range Desert Group did in North Africa. We will live in the desert. We will be mobile and able to strike when we want. We will have surprise on our side," he said.
The Hussars were until Thursday stationed at Camp Abu Naji near Amara, the capital of Maysan province which also has a large presence of Mehdi Army militia fighters loyal to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
The base has been a target for frequent mortar and rocket barrages since being set up in 2003, although the attacks have caused few injuries, Burbridge said.
While dismissing suggestions the British had been forced out of Amara, he acknowledged the attacks had been one reason for the decision to withdraw, the second being that a static base did not fit with the new operation.
"Abu Naji was a bulls-eye in the middle of a dartboard. The attacks were a nuisance and were a contributing factor in our planning," to quit the base, he said.
"We understand the militias in Maysan province are using this as an example that we have been pushed out of Abu Naji, but that is not true. It was very rare for us to take casualties."
DISAPPEAR & DISRUPT
Burbridge said the new-look battle group would consist of 600 fighting troops and "would disappear into the marshlands and desert" to disrupt smuggling from Iran. A further 600 members of the unit will back them up from Basra.
"The Americans are concerned with the inflow of weapons across the border. We are not saying it is state-controlled but there is a large tribal area that straddles the border and weapons are a very lucrative trade at the moment," he said.
U.S. and British officials have accused Iran of arming Shi'ite militias blamed for much of the sectarian violence now ravaging Iraq, as well as for attacks on foreign troops.
He said Iraqi security forces would now be responsible for day-to-day security in Maysan but stressed that the British had not yet handed over complete control to them.
Within hours of the British withdrawal from Abu Naji, local residents said Iraqi soldiers had fired warning shots to disperse looters at the base. Burbridge said the British had left little equipment behind.
When the British handed over their base in nearby Muthanna province to Iraqi security forces in July it was quickly looted by local tribesmen, a senior Iraqi army official said.
Residents also saw air conditioners, apparently from the base on sale, in a market in the provincial capital, Samawa.
By Ross Colvin