Britain is a great power that must not “run away” from its responsibilities in Iraq, the Iraqi Foreign Minister has told The Times of London.

Criticizing Britain’s recent “lack of engagement” in the southern city of Basra, Hoshyar Zebari has forecast catastrophic consequences if London and Washington decide prematurely to withdraw their troops from Iraq: a bloodbath as the country breaks up, neighbors sucked into a regional conflict, an oil crisis and a new terrorist haven far deadlier than Afghanistan.

Click here to read the story from The Times of London.

“I am worried, absolutely worried,” Zebari said yesterday as British troops prepared to withdraw from central Basra and the US Congress debates whether Iraq – where 3,600 American soldiers have met their end over the past four years – should be written off as a lost cause. “The stakes are very, very high for us as Iraqis, for the US and Britain, and for stability and security in the region.”

Zebari, 54, a Kurd who studied at the University of Essex and has been Foreign Minister since the removal of Saddam Hussein, said that he was relaxed about this week’s expected withdrawal of 600 British troops from the beleaguered Basra Palace to join 5,000 compatriots at their airport base outside the city. That was merely a symbolic move, he said, though he agreed that it could be regarded in the Arab world as a defeat.

He expressed concern that it could herald a hasty withdrawal of all British troops from Iraq. That would trigger a “free for all” among the heavily armed militias battling for control of Basra and southern Iraq’s huge oil revenues. Without those revenues Iraq would come to a standstill, Zebari said.

“Despite their lack of engagement [the British] are doing a very, very important role not allowing further deterioration,” he said. He criticized Britain’s failure to do more to prepare Basra for its return to Iraqi control. As recently as 2005 the city was a model for the rest of Iraq, Zebari said, but no longer.

“I expected that the British should have invested more in building Iraqi capacity, security forces and administration, but for some time they have let it drag without engagement.”

Zebari warned the US and Britain that withdrawing prematurely from Iraq would lead to “real disaster” on a global scale. The country could break into several parts, and without the deterrent of coalition forces “you would really see a bloodbath” as Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds fought one another and among themselves. Intervention by Iran would suck neighboring Sunni Arab countries and Turkey into a regional conflict. Iraq could end up as a haven for al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks “in a far more convenient environment than Afghanistan”.

Zebari added: “I don’t think the US or Britain or the international community would like to see oil and terrorism combine forces.”