News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqThe tide is turning in Basra

The tide is turning in Basra


Daily Telegraph: Despite growing stability, an early withdrawal of all British troops for political reasons would be a big mistake, says Con Coughlin, who reports from a transformed Iraqi city. The Daily Telegraph

By Con Coughlin

Despite growing stability, an early withdrawal of all British troops for political reasons would be a big mistake, says Con Coughlin, who reports from a transformed Iraqi city

When Tony Blair made his valedictory tour of Iraq last summer, he was greeted with a volley of rockets and mortars launched by Iraqi insurgents at the beleaguered British encampments in Basra. By contrast, when Gordon Brown made his first visit as Prime Minister to the country this week, all was calm, and the trip passed so peaceably that he would hardly have known he was travelling in one of the world’s most ferocious war zones.

The atmosphere at the former Saddam Hussein International Airport, which serves as the British military’s last outpost in southern Iraq, was so relaxed that the Prime Minister was even able to take time out from his hectic schedule to autograph a battle-scarred Challenger tank, which will no doubt become a valuable artefact given the former Chancellor’s well-known parsimony when it comes to military spending.

Indeed, the fact that Mr Brown had managed to find his way to Iraq in the first place was something of a miracle given that, since becoming Prime Minister, his attitude to the Iraq conflict has appeared to be, “Whatever you do, don’t mention the war”. It was fine to talk about Afghanistan, which the Brownites have designated the “front line” in the worldwide campaign against militant Islam (the term “war on terror” has similarly been banished from the Brownite lexicon).

But Iraq, with its emotive associations with No 10’s previous incumbent, was another matter, and should only be referred to in extremis, a fact reflected in Mr Brown’s Bournemouth conference speech, when the four-year-old conflict merited only the briefest of mentions.

advertisementIn fact, Mr Brown’s lightning visit had more to do with upstaging David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool than any new-found enthusiasm for the Iraq conflict. This was reflected in the cynical timing of his announcement that the number of service men and women in Iraq would be reduced by at least 1,000 by Christmas.

If Mr Brown thought this headline-grabbing announcement would take the wind out of Mr Cameron’s sails, he was deeply mistaken. Mr Brown might like to portray his style of government as more honest and businesslike than that of the Blair era, but when it comes to spin, the Prime Minister is as culpable as his predecessor.

When I mentioned the Prime Minister’s troop reduction statement to the young soldiers stationed at Basra, they saw straight through it. “But most of them had already gone from here after we pulled back from the city centre last month,” commented a private with the 1st Mechanised Brigade. “Why doesn’t he tell us something new?” The soldiers’ views were reflected by the Tory’s defence spokesman, Dr Liam Fox, who accused the Prime Minister of using the military as a political pawn.

The result was that Mr Brown’s attempts to make political capital badly misfired – by the end of the week his lead in the opinion polls was slashed from 11 to just four points.

On Monday Mr Brown is expected to give a long-awaited statement to the House of Commons on Britain’s deployment to Iraq, and it is to be hoped that he offers a far more serious appraisal of the military challenges facing the force in Basra than the trite soundbites he came up with this week.

For after four painful years of missed opportunities and sacrifice, there are encouraging signs that progress is being made in helping the Iraqi people rebuild their country after decades of misrule.

The military surge undertaken by the Americans has seen a significant reduction in Baghdad and the surrounding provinces. Although accurate figures are hard to come by, coalition claims that the murder rate in Baghdad has halved since the surge began in June are being given credence by even the most critical aid agencies.

The American military’s success in tackling the more militant insurgent groups has led to many Sunni tribal elders, who had given their tacit support to the insurgency, opting to cooperate with coalition forces in restoring security and political stability.

This significant change in Iraq’s political and security climate is also manifesting itself in the south, where the British military has had responsibility for administering four provinces since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in the spring of 2003.

In the past few weeks there has been a tangible improvement in the security there, particularly since British troops vacated their last outpost in Basra’s city centre at the end of August. Crime in Basra is down 70 per cent, and rocket and mortar attacks against British forces – which were running at more than 90 a day in the summer – have been reduced almost to zero – as Mr Brown experienced for himself this week.

Indeed, wherever one looks in the British sector, there are grounds to believe that, far from degenerating into all-out civil war, the Iraqis are finally coming to terms with their post-Saddam condition and are starting to acquire the confidence and the institutions necessary for running their affairs.

One of the by-products of the coalition’s four-year occupation of Iraq is that it is easy to forget that the ultimate objective set out by President Bush and Tony Blair after Saddam’s overthrow was to restore Iraq to a position where it was able to govern itself without outside help.

The collapse of the government’s infrastructure and security apparatus meant that this was always going to be a long haul. But, bit by bit, the building blocks have been put in place, starting with the new constitution, which was confirmed by a national referendum in late 2005, and followed by the election of the first democratic government in Iraq’s history.

For long periods, attempts to make political progress have been severely hampered by the appalling security situation. This has been caused as much by entrenched ethnic rivalries, especially between Sunni and Shia communities, as by malign foreign influences, whether from al-Qa’eda or Iran, which have sought to undermine the coalition’s attempts to restore Iraq to fully functioning sovereignty.

Even if the political paralysis that affects the government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki means that political progress remains disappointingly slow, the recent security improvements have given local leaders and communities the confidence to start taking control of their own affairs.

This is particularly true in the south where, despite claims that Shia communities were effectively being governed by Iran, tribal elders have quietly asserted their control.

Of the four southern provinces placed under the protection of British forces, three have been handed over to local control, while the fourth, Basra, should be handed over by the end of the year.

When the process of handing back the provinces began last year, British commanders in Basra reckoned that there would be occasions when it would be necessary for them to intervene militarily to support local governors.

It was for this reason that the four Army battle groups based at Basra were maintained. But senior British commanders have been impressed by the way the Iraqis have insisted on taking care of their own affairs, even under the most intense provocation.

One of their biggest tests came in the summer when the pro-coalition governors of Muthanna and Qadasiyah provinces were assassinated. “We half expected the Iraqi provincial authorities to contact us and ask for assistance,” a senior British officer told me. “But in fact the Iraqis made it clear they did not want any assistance. They were adamant that they wanted to sort things out themselves. It was a very encouraging sign.”

In fact, the desire of Iraqis to conduct their own affairs has caused British commanders to undertake a radical re-evaluation of how they go about providing support.

Even before Saddam’s overthrow the Iraqis had a reputation as a fiercely nationalistic people who did not take kindly to having foreigners order them about. The British colonial powers learnt this lesson in the 1920s, when they had to put down a violent Shia uprising, and again in the 1930s.

The same fierce nationalistic traits are just as strong today, but it is only recently that the Government appears to have woken up to the fact that the British can achieve far more by supporting local Iraqis than by trying to dominate them.

This partly explains the decision by senior commanders at the end of the summer to withdraw the 500-strong battle group based at Basra Palace to the air base on the city outskirts. “We realised that nationalism was the driving force behind the intensity of the attacks we were encountering,” explained one of the officers. “Just by being there we were uniting all the Iraqi factions in a common cause of attacking us. Once we withdrew the attacks stopped. It was as simple as that.”

The decision, however, was not taken simply to avoid further punishment from the relentless rocket and mortar bombardment of the palace.

Another crucial consideration was whether the Iraqi security forces were capable of filling the security void. And if the evidence of the past five weeks is anything to go by, the signs are encouraging. The effectiveness of the Iraqi security forces is such that, as Mr Brown intimated during his lightning visit, Basra should be handed over to full Iraqi control by the end of next month.

Having handed over all four provinces it is tempting to think – as Mr Brown no doubt is this weekend – that the British mission as conceived after Saddam’s overthrow has been completed and that the time has come to give serious consideration to undertaking a full withdrawal of British troops.

But to undertake a complete withdrawal now would be premature for two crucial reasons. Even if, by the end of the year, British forces no longer have responsibility for governing the Iraqis, there is still much work to be done before Iraq’s security forces are fully operational to the extent that they can take care of the country’s internal security concerns, while protecting its borders from foreign interference, particularly from Iran.

It would also be foolhardy of the Government to contemplate a significant draw down of its military commitment to Iraq while US forces are still a long way from accomplishing the same level of Iraqi autonomy in the provinces under their control.

Britain, it should be remembered, remains an important contributor to the US-led coalition’s effort to rebuild all of Iraq, not just the four provinces in the south. So while it might be politically expedient for Gordon Brown to talk about undertaking a significant withdrawal of British troops when he addresses the Commons next week, it would simply not be realistic for him to do so.

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