BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Five-hundred British troops began withdrawing Sunday from their base in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, the Ministry of Defense said.
British soldiers sit atop their armored vehicles in this file photo from March in Basra.
The move from the Basra Palace consolidates most of Britain's 5,500-strong force at Basra's airport, which has been hit daily by mortar attacks. It does not represent a major shift or a pullout, the ministry noted.
Basra is the last of five provinces in southern Iraq that Britain has handed over to the Iraqis. British forces will remain to train and supervise Iraqi forces.
The withdrawal is part of a plan announced in February by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, British Embassy spokeswoman Rosie Tapper told CNN.
During their time in Basra, British forces have helped the Iraqis take more responsibility for governing the area, she said.
Previously, the British had handed over two other bases to the Iraqis. The palace was the third.
The withdrawal from Basra comes at the same time retired Maj. Gen. Tim Cross, the most senior British officer involved in postwar planning, criticized former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a British newspaper for dismissing warnings that Iraq could fall into chaos.
"Right from the very beginning we were all very concerned about the lack of detail that had gone into the postwar plan, and there is no doubt that Rumsfeld was at the heart of that process," Cross said in the Sunday Mirror.
Cross' comment came on the heels of similar published remarks by retired British Gen. Sir Mike Jackson.
The statements draw attention to perceived tensions between the U.S. and the British command over strategy in Iraq. Watch what the pullback says about Britain's future in Iraq »
But a U.S. official in Iraq seemed to take them in stride.
"There can be disagreements amongst professionals about certain ways of how you handle strategy and tactics," said Rear Adm. Mark Fox.
The British Ministry of Defense released a statement saying the generals are both "private individuals expressing private views and we respect that. They are entitled to their opinions."
Militia clashes probed
Meanwhile on Sunday, Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered a committee to oversee the investigation into last week's factional militia clashes that left nearly 60 people dead in Baghdad and Karbala during a Shiite religious holiday, a statement from al-Maliki's office said.
The committee's goal is to work in a "neutral and professional manner without any alignment to any party," the statement said.
The prime minister's office underscored the need for neutrality and nonpartisanship when "dealing with the file of the detainees" arrested from those events.
The Karbala fighting began August 27 between members of the Mehdi Army and the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq. The battles continued into the next day. Authorities reported 54 people killed and more than more than 260 wounded in the fighting.
The Mehdi Army is commanded by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The cleric, who emerged as a popular grass-roots leader after the United States toppled Saddam Hussein, has staunchly opposed the U.S. occupation.
The clashes prompted the evacuation of pilgrims in Karbala, who fled to places like Hilla and Najaf and forced authorities to impose security measures, including a stiff daytime curfew in Karbala.
Hostilities among Shiites extended to other regions, such as Baghdad and Babil, where attackers torched at least 10 Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq offices. Eleven people, at least five in Baghdad and six in Babil, were killed.
The violence among Shiites continued Sunday. In al-Iskandariya in Babil province, unknown men attacked a member of the supreme council. He survived but was badly beaten, police said.
Also Sunday, a member of al-Maliki's Shiite Dawa party escaped an assassination attempt after an improvised bomb was left outside his house in al-Iskandariya.
Then, gunmen in a speeding vehicle opened fire at the house of the commander of the Scorpion Forces, a SWAT team in Hilla that was sent to Karbala last week. There were no casualties. Later, those gunmen were captured and are under investigation, police said.
Police believe all the latest violence in the region is related to recent events in Karbala.
Also on Sunday, reported death toll figures, normally given by sources within Iraq's Interior Ministry, were questioned by the ministry's spokesman, Brig. General Abdul Kareen Khalaf.
Media must rely on anonymous sources in the Interior Ministry because it does not officially release death tolls.
On Friday, CNN reported that 1,773 Iraqi civilians died in the war during August -- based on figures provided by sources within the ministry.
Khalaf disputed counts of Iraqi civilian deaths, saying just 1,011 Iraqi civilians were killed last month. He said about 700 of them were victims of bombings in northern Iraq.
Similar discrepancies have occurred before -- sources close to the ministry's data-collecting process have provided one figure and then the ministry has said it is wrong and issued a smaller figure.
In addition, Khalaf said, 359 unidentified bodies were found in Baghdad in August.
However, CNN, which keeps its own count of bodies based on daily reports from sources in the Interior Ministry, tallied 428 such deaths in August. E-mail to a friend
CNN's Raja Razek, Daniela Berretta and Jomana Karadsheh contributed to this report
All About Basra