Instructions to troops in Basra: keep fingers crossed

By Anthony Loyd (THE TIMES, 28/08/07):

The clock is nearing midnight for the withdrawal of the beleaguered British troops from their base in the palace in Basra. The date at which the 650 soldiers will retire from their position to join their 5,000 comrades at the airport outside the city is imminent. In the two months since they arrived in Iraq this battle group has been under virtual siege, its palace quarters subject to the highest rate of incoming mortar and rocket fire anywhere in Iraq. Little surprise, then, that they have already suffered the worst casualty rate of any British unit serving in Iraq, including that of forces involved in the 2003 invasion.

Some senior officers have attempted to portray the withdrawal from the palace –– the prelude to a wider British disengagement from southern Iraq next year –– as timely and practical. In an interview last month Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of Defence Staff, said: “Our mission there was to get the place and the people to a state where the Iraqis could run that part of the country if they chose to and we’re very nearly there.”

The Americans do not agree. Over the past two weeks, senior US officers and intelligence officials in Baghdad have talked disparagingly of a British “defeat” in Basra, and cautioned that British withdrawal would be followed by turmoil as local militias fight each other for dominance.

Little in Basra suggests it is ready to be handed over to Iraqi forces. Iraqi government control, so much as it exists at all in the city, is perilously weak. The city’s governor, a leading donor to the Fadilah militia that controls many of Basra’s oil refineries, was sacked by the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, over a month ago, but has refused to leave his post.

The city’s police force has barely been reformed from the Frankenstein monstrosity of death squad members and mafia thugs first recruited and trained by the British in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. Basra’s three main militias have penetrated every corner of local office and security apparatus. Some city neighbourhoods have become almost no-go areas for coalition forces, ringed with IEDs (improvised explosive devices), and governed by the gun law of militiamen. Hardly “mission accomplished” for British foreign policy aims.

Iraqi troops from the 10th Division, already in the north of the city, are scarcely better prepared to take over control of Basra. British officers say that the 10th Division will not be ready to hold its own until at least October, weeks after the planned departure from the palace.

If the schedule for this withdrawal is adhered to, British soldiers will find themselves in the unenviable situation of remaining responsible for the security of a city from which they have withdrawn. Any troops ordered to move back into Basra will first have to fight their way in from the airport, situated beyond the city’s western reaches: a high-risk gambit.

But there is an argument for optimism, of a sort. The British Government points out that 90 per cent of Basra’s violence is aimed at British soldiers. The logic goes that once these troops have left the city, the violence will dramatically diminish. The examples of the three southern provinces already handed by the British Army to the Iraqis tend to back this argument. Furthermore, two outstations in Basra city already transferred from British to Iraqi control, the Shatt-al-Arab hotel and Old State Building, both of which were heavily attacked during the British tenure, became peaceful almost overnight once in the hands of Iraqi troops.

The political dimension of this argument suggests that the presence of British forces divides Shia loyalties, and once they have pulled back the Shia will find their own peaceful equilibrium. Iranian infuence will then diminish. Despite a shared faith, Baswaris have historically proved themselves violently opposed to Iranian power. Though elements of Basra’s most powerful militia, the Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM), are financed, trained and equipped by Iran, once the British leave, it is argued, JAM will have to reject this backing to maintain their nationalistic credentials.

Basra will become neither an Iranian satellite nor a Beirut civil war battlefield, but more of a Palermo-style mafia fiefdom. Not quite what the British had in mind for Basra, but better than the situation in Baghdad.

The pessimists, among them the Americans, predict that once the British withdraw, the fledgling Iraqi Army and the corrupt police, themselves riven by factional loyalties, will be powerless to stop the militias fighting each other for control of Basra’s vast potential oil wealth. The violence aimed at the British, will simply be redirected into bloody factionalism. Iran will capitalise on the vacuum and buy out the JAM’s nationalist convictions with money and guns.

As yet no one knows what will happen. But on one matter all seem in accord. The lot of coalition troops will improve little in the immediate aftermath of a British withdrawal from Basra palace. JAM –– keen to portray itself as the force that ejected Britain from Basra –– has everything to gain by intensifying its rocket attacks against the airbase. British soldiers, with inadequate cover overhead, are liable to be killed in their beds by Iranian-supplied rockets. Furthermore, key supply lines from Kuwait to Baghdad, vital to US troops in the centre of Iraq, will become the subject of invigorated JAM attacks.

The endgame phase for Basra and the British may yet be long and painful. The hasty decisions to deploy British forces to southern Iraq in the first place were ill-judged. But for the sake of British troops there now, cohesion with their American allies and the future of the Baswaris themselves, it is essential that the plans to withdraw the British from southern Iraq are not dogged by the same malaise.