Basra gains revive talk of British exit
The British role in the southern Iraqi oil city, once lorded over by Mahdi Army militiamen and criminal gangs, may end in early 2009 if new security gains take hold.
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While significant gains have been made in Basra, problems persist. The impoverished city still faces pockets of militants activity. On Saturday, gunmen murdered a Shiite cleric who had been an outspoken critic of the militants who had gained much power and control of the city. Haider al-Saymari, a follower of Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, was ambushed while traveling back to Iran, where he has been living.Skip to next paragraph
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Indeed, many British soldiers say only time will tell if the gains can hold.
Although no official decisions have been made, American, Iraqi, and British officials are discussing the possibility of US forces taking control of the south. Under the proposed plan, the majority of Britain's 4,100 troops would return home in early 2009, potentially leaving a handful of military advisers.
The US would then take charge of the battle space. There are already hundreds of US soldiers, predominantly military advisers, operating here.
"This will be based on conditions on the ground. Consequently neither London nor Washington have endorsed plans and normal contingency military planning at the tactical level is under way," British Army spokesman Maj. Paul Smyth.
British Army Maj. Lawrence Ives, currently serving his third tour in Basra, is optimistic that security gains will hold, potentially allowing for an end to major coalition operations in the region.
In the past, he says, Iraq's central government had become bogged down by problems elsewhere in the country and failed to exert the "will to govern" in the south. Starting with the spring offensive, Ives says Iraq's central government has shown the desire to take charge of the south in a way he never saw during earlier tours.
"I can train [an Iraqi] soldier as much as you like, but unless the government sits down and says, 'I am going to rule that city, I am going to find a way to impose my will, … to impose the rule of law on that city come what may,' nothing is going to work," says Major Ives, commander of the 1-26 Military Transition Team (1-26 MiTT), which advises the Iraqi military here. "That was never for us to do, and we couldn't make them want to do that."
After years of heavy militia activity, Ives speculates that organized crime may become a problem here, although he has not seen any evidence of it yet.
"Those things develop a momentum of their own," he says. "There's going to be a lot of people who work in those [criminal] webs who are making really good money out of it, and once those militias fade away those guys are still going to find that an easy way to make money."