Gethin Chamberlain in Basra for The Sunday Telegraph, 28 October 2007
It was as astonishing an admission as any that has emerged from the lips of a British officer in the four and a half years since the tanks rolled over the Iraqi border. The British Army, said the man sitting in a prefab hut in Britain’s last base in the country, were tired of fighting. Not only that: their very presence in Basra was now the problem.
“We would go down there [Basra], dressed as Robocop, shooting at people if they shot at us, and innocent people were getting hurt,” he said. “We don’t speak Arabic to explain and our translators were too scared to work for us any more. What benefit were we bringing to these people?”
The officer — one of the most senior in Iraq — agreed to speak to The Sunday Telegraph only on the highly unusual condition of anonymity, but he made clear that what he said reflected a major change in British tactics. “We are tired of firing at people,” he said. “We would prefer to find a political accommodation.”
It is a spectacular U-turn. Until September, when British troops pulled out of the city in what Gordon Brown described as a “pre-planned and organised” move, the fighting was as intense as any since the start of the war in 2003. This year, 44 British soldiers have died as a result of Britain’s operations in Iraq. Yet their commanders are now saying they got it wrong.
Rather than fight on, they have struck a deal – or accommodation, as they describe it – with the Shia militias that dominate the city, promising to stay out in return for assurances that they will not be attacked. Since withdrawing, the British have not set foot in the city and even have to ask for permission if they want to skirt the edges to get to the Iranian border on the other side.
Britain has always said that it would hand over control of Basra province to the Iraqi authorities only when the Iraqi forces were capable of taking control. But the picture emerging from inside the city suggests that this is far from the case.
Since the withdrawal, attacks on British forces in the region have plummeted, but the level of violence in Basra remains high. Iraqis living in the city say it is now patrolled by death squads. Even the British admit that local Iraqi troops are unwilling to take on the Shia militias. As for the police — as elsewhere in Iraq — they remain ineffective and are heavily infiltrated by members of the militias.
“The army here in Basra is not good,” admits Capt Allah Muthfer Abdullah, whose armoured battalion was brought down from Baghdad three months ago to shore up the local forces. “We don’t trust them. The army here joins the militias at night and by day they come back to us. We need more soldiers from Baghdad or the north — or a brigade of the US army.” He blamed Iran for arming and supporting Basra’s militias, claiming that the city was now more dangerous than the Iraqi capital.
A local commander admitted that his men needed much more time before they could guarantee security. “Soldiers from Basra can’t fight against militias,” said Capt Ali Modar, of the new 14th Iraqi Division, which has taken over responsibility for security in the city. “It is difficult to overcome them. We need people to come from other parts of Iraq. Soldiers from Basra know that if they arrest anyone they will be killed, or their families will be killed.”
A former British Army interpreter in the city, whom it would be too dangerous to name, said that people had no confidence in the Iraqi army. Tribes and militias had seized control, he said. “It is not safe here. I have to sleep with a gun under my bed. The British Army leaving is a bad thing.”
The British appear to base their new strategy on an almost total faith in one man, Gen Mohan al-Furayji, who came down from Baghdad to take over responsibility for security, promising to sort out the city. The general, a Shia in his early fifties who spent time in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad after falling out with Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, is answerable only to Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister.
The British are so convinced that he is the answer to Basra’s problems that they are making plans to deal with him, instead of the elected provincial governor, Mohammed al-Waily, who one official dismissed as “a problem”.
But relying on one man is a high-risk strategy and its fragility was demonstrated last Wednesday when gunmen tried to kill the chief of police, Maj-Gen Abdul-Jalil Khalaf, at a busy market in the city. He survived the assassination attempt, the fourth he has faced, but it followed serious fighting the previous day between Gen Mohan’s forces and supporters of the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Even as British officers were extolling the strengths of the new security forces, al-Sadr’s Mahdi army was overwhelming the Iraqi security forces to free one of its men from the main police headquarters in the city.
With no presence in the city, British forces are hard pushed to keep abreast of what is going on. They say they get their information from local newspapers and from the Iraqi army, although one battalion of that force is isolated inside the city and the other battalion is in training outside. The British have already encountered much the same problem in the neighbouring Maysan province to the north east, which they handed over in April.
“There is a vacuum of knowledge there,” one officer said, admitting the border with Iran was porous. Soldiers report that Iranian-made roadside bombs smuggled across are turning up more regularly around the British base in Basra, though none has yet been successfully detonated.
Instead of going into Basra, British troops now patrol their base at the airport and make forays up to the border to deter smuggling and to show people they are still around. Many are disheartened by the lack of public support for the war back home. Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Welsh (the Royal Regiment of Wales), driving their Warrior armoured vehicles into the desert around the Rumaliyah oil fields, saw little point in fighting on.
“If we went into the city every night, we would still be doing it in 10 years’ time,” said Capt John Kestin, 26. “There is nothing the military can do any more without the backing of politicians, and no politician wants to touch Iraq with a bargepole. Having the military out here without political backing is pointless.”
His company commander, Major Sid Welham, said the heavily armed force had orders to keep clear of areas where they might encounter insurgents. “We are avoiding areas where we know there may be trouble, much like in Basra,” he said.
But until the pull-out from the city six weeks ago, the Royal Welsh were in the thick of the fighting. Capt Kester and L/Cpl Thomas McAlister, 25, a Warrior driver, described missions into Basra that were so intense that they had to call in Tornado jets to strafe enemy positions, missions in which colleagues were killed, and firefights that lasted for hours as they tried to get their casualties out of danger.
At the same time, troops back in the base at Basra airport were enduring a daily barrage of rockets. Many in Britain were unaware of the sheer scale of the attacks. At one stage, 300 rockets a month were raining down on the camp. Capt Sarah Heyhoe, 26, a medic attached to 2 Royal Welsh, described how doctors continued to treat patients even when the hospital was hit, though the lights had gone out and the rooms had filled with smoke. “You can’t stop an operation,” she explained, bashfully.
How the Iraqi forces might cope with such intense opposition is uncertain.
“No one is pretending these are first-class forces,” one senior British officer said. The hope is that the local troops will suffice, but much of the force intended to secure Basra is not yet formed. Out of four scheduled divisions, only about one and a half exist and half of their men are on holiday at any one time.
Lt Col Derek Plews, the British military spokesman, said there was much work to be done, particularly in getting supplies through from Baghdad. “The Arab psyche
is really bad at the administration side of things,” he said. “They just think about the fun bit of it, such as firing the bullets.”
The Irish Guards training the nascent force at the former British base at Shaibah say some of the recruits look promising, others less so. But it is too late to worry about that now.
The Army is due to hand over control to the Iraqi authorities before Christmas. By next spring, Britain will have just 2,500 troops left outside Basra, about half their current level. Five years on from the invasion, the British Army will be back to the position it was in before it first seized the city, camped on its western edge, looking in across the Shatt Al-Basrah waterway. At least then it was able to take on those inside.
For Britain, in southern Iraq, it is all but over. It tried force, and ultimately had to admit that force failed. Since March 2003, 171 British men and women have lost their lives in the war. British commanders can only hope that the Iraqis have more luck. But if, as the British mantra now runs, the answer is “an Iraqi solution to an Iraqi problem”, the question that must now be asked is why it took so long to reach that conclusion, and whether it should have been reached much earlier, at a cost of far fewer British lives.