Iraqi leaders yesterday condemned Britain's decision to withdraw troops saying it would lead to a bloodbath and ethnic cleansing.
After The Daily Telegraph revealed that troop numbers would be reduced by almost 3,000 to 4,500 at the end of May and withdrawn to a single base outside Basra, local party chiefs were shocked to discover that they were about to be abandoned.
They asked that Tony Blair keep British troops in the towns to prevent the slaughter and forced expulsion of thousands of Sunnis, the minority in the Shia dominated south.
The Prime Minister has always promised that Britain would never leave Iraq "until the job is done".
The town of Az Zubayr is unique in Iraq in that its 60,000 Sunni residents live in harmony with the 460,000 Shias. People from the two Islamic branches live next door to each other, a state of affairs unthinkable in Baghdad. "The decision to withdraw is wrong and the British have the responsibility to protect us," said Sheik Abdul Kareem Al Dusari. "The situation in Az Zubayr is good now because the rogue militias are asleep but if the British leave they will awaken."
The leader of the Sunni-dominated Iraqi Islamic Party said Shia militias planned to plant car bombs in Shia areas and blame the killings on Sunnis.
That would create an excuse to attack them and effectively lead to Basra province being ethnically cleansed, he said.
Already the Sunni population in the province has dropped from 500,000 to 200,000 since the invasion of 2003 with many fleeing Iraq or joining their fellow believers in central Iraq.
Sheik Kareem believed that the militia were entirely backed by Iran which wanted to dominate the area.
"I request the British people and commanders to keep British forces working in Az Zubayr until the Iraqi security forces have the authority to run affairs," he said. "If I inform the Sunni people of Az Zubayr that the British are leaving they will leave too."
He said that once the militias became aware the British were leaving they would prepare to move into Az Zubayr to overrun the police.
The sheik's pleas were even echoed by the rival Shia-backed Tharallah party. Salan Maki Mohana, the party leader in Az Zubayr, said it would be "very dangerous" for the British to leave.
"Lots of people will take advantage of the bad security," he said.
The Army had brought some major beneficial projects to the town including its hospital, schools, water and electricity, he said.
Are the iraqis developing a dependency on foreign troops, and do we need to ween them off slowly, or force them to take charge with a dose of cold turkey?