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.

Tom A. Peter
Risk: British Army Lance Bombardier Frank Shaw, left, and Lance Bombardier Wayne May play a game of Risk at their outpost in Basra, Iraq.
Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

On his first tour here in 2006, British Army Lance Bombardier Frank Shaw says that three of his unit's interpreters were kidnapped, a local Iraqi shopkeeper on his base helped insurgents direct mortar attacks on British barracks, and even the Iraqi police used to shoot at his unit occasionally.

Two years later, on his second tour, Lance Bombardier Shaw says he's returned to a changed Basra, the Shiite oil city and capital of Basra Province. In fact, the transitions here could convince British forces to end their role in the province altogether next year.

"The city has calmed down. I've been here for four months and I've only heard two rounds fired in the city the whole time," he says.

This spring, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered a massive offensive to reclaim Basra from the control of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, other Shiite militias, and criminal gangs that thrived on the black market trade that had grown around the south's petroleum industry.

At first, Mr. Maliki's high-stakes assault on the Mahdi Army looked like it was a failure as soon as it started. His men were retreating and handing over weapons to Shiite clerics loyal to Mr. Sadr. Hundreds of militants and civilians were dying.

But Maliki pressed on, with the assistance of US military firepower and strategic assistance. In the end, Sadr backed down and the assault proved to be a turning point for the city and the province.

But the British were largely left out of the fight. Recent reports in the British press have pointed to a special deal with the Mahdi Army that kept them from the fight this spring, opening the door for criminals and militias to spread their influence in the city.

British military officials, however, have denied these allegations, stating that they were delayed for several days from entering the Iraqi government's springtime assault because they had to switch from a training role to an active combat role. This process takes several days and happened faster than usual in this instance, say British military officials.

The British role all along in Basra has been one of training and assistance to the fledgling Iraqi security forces. Many worried that criminals and Shiite militias would only expand their clout when the British pulled out of downtown Basra and repositioned themselves on the city's outskirts in September 2007. And some of the British soldiers here still speculate that organized crime remains and will only spread.

But the gains seen on the ground make talk of a complete British withdrawal from the south of Iraq in early 2009 seem like a realistic possibility. Unlike the prior tours, soldiers say they've returned to a capable Iraqi military and an Iraqi government that is willing to take charge.

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.

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."

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