BAGHDAD — Britain froze plans Tuesday to withdraw about 1,500 soldiers this spring after the faltering effort to drive Shiite militias from Basra raised doubts about whether the Iraqis are capable of maintaining security in oil-rich southern Iraq.
The British decision was announced in London one week before the top U.S. commander in Iraq appears before Congress to offer his recommendation on how fast the United States should draw down its forces.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday in Denmark that last week's violence in Shiite areas had not changed U.S. plans to withdraw more combat forces by July.
But second thoughts about Iraqi security capabilities emerged as Iraq's government reported a 50 percent rise in the number of people killed in March over the previous month. Much of the increase was a result of the fighting between Iraqi government forces and Shiite militiamen in the southern city of Basra. The conflict quickly spread, engulfing Baghdad and major cities throughout the Shiite south.
Britain had planned to drawn down its 4,000-strong military force in southern Iraq to 2,500 over the next few months, handing over more security responsibility to the Iraqis.
In the wake of the Basra fighting, however, Defense Secretary Des Browne told the House of Commons that "it is prudent that we pause any further reductions while the current situation is unfolding."
Browne offered no criticism of the Iraqi effort in Basra, launched March 25 to regain control of the country's second-largest city from Shiite militias and criminal gangs that have effectively ruled the streets for nearly three years.
The operation faltered in the face of fierce resistance from the Mahdi Army of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, forcing the Iraqi military to turn to U.S. jets and British tanks and artillery to try to dislodge the gunmen from their strongholds.
Britain's opposition Conservative Party defense spokesman, Liam Fox, complained that the Iraqis had not fully consulted their coalition partners before launching the operation.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki returned Tuesday to Baghdad, declaring the operation a success although several Basra neighborhoods appeared to remain under militia control.
Figures compiled by the ministries of health, interior and defense showed that at least 1,720 people were killed in politically motivated violence in March. That was up sharply from the 953 figure for February.
Elsewhere, police and Mahdi militiamen exchanged gunfire early Tuesday in Nasiriyah. Three police officers were killed.