Iraq: after Basra, a new reality
Sunday Dec 14
Tearing through Basra in the back of an Iraqi army pick-up truck last week, with no body armour and no British soldiers nearby, it struck me as the most foolish thing I had done in five years of covering southern Iraq. On every previous visit – and I have made a score or more – it would have been evidence of a death wish to set out without a troop of heavily armoured vehicles, and a platoon of heavily armed soldiers, for company.
But even a few minutes into the drive to downtown Basra, the change in atmosphere was tangible. No longer was there a wince of fear on hearing the detonation of a bomb, or while contemplating where precisely incoming shells would land.
This week, Defence Secretary John Hutton confirmed that the situation in Iraq was “infinitely better” than a year ago, and that most of our 4,100 troops will be home by the end of June. There is, in other words, a sense that our time in the country is drawing to a close – hence the Conservatives’ renewed demand for a full inquiry into the war, once our withdrawal is complete.
So what has happened to bring a rapid end to a mission that was only recently bogged down in a quagmire of insurgency? Amid the drama of Afghanistan, the transformation of Iraq’s second city, which was given to the British to protect and administer after the fall of Saddam Hussein, has gone largely unnoticed. But it is a remarkable one.
“The highlight for me has been going into a mosque in Basra at 10pm with no body armour or pistol, when previously I’d have needed a whole battlegroup of Warriors and Challenger tanks,” Lt Col Simon Browne, whose 2006 tour with the 2nd Bn The Royal Anglians saw some of the worst urban fighting, told me. “Basra is a different city.”
Yet despite Lt Col Browne’s pride in his men’s efforts, it’s difficult to judge how much of that difference is due to the British. From the outset, our campaign was handicapped by its questionable legitimacy, as well as a lack of political will to see our troops take risks. Although we bored the Americans senseless about Northern Ireland, we ignored many of the hard-learned principles of counter-insurgency. Our pacification efforts descended into an effort to preserve British lives, of which 178 have been lost in total, while somehow trying to persuade the Jaish al Mahdi militia (JAM) that they were not in full control of the city. By the end, when we were down to just a single base at Basra Palace, the main task was simply keeping the base going, via weekly supply convoys that ran a lethal gauntlet of armour-piercing devices.
Then, in September 2007, we withdrew from the city after an “accommodation” was made with the insurgents. In the spring of this year, the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – perhaps galvanised by American criticism – ordered his own army into the militia’s strongholds. It was a rout. Out of 3,000 men from the Iraqi brigade, almost 1,000 deserted within the first 48 hours. The prime minister had called on a unit straight out of training.
The tide turned when Maliki, sensing defeat, sent for the army’s crack 1st Division, along with its 800 American mentors. For seven days, gun battles echoed throughout the city, but while the bulk of British forces remained in their base on the city’s outskirts, the Iraqi army persevered, killing 150 insurgents and sending the rest scuttling over the border to Iran.
Basra was among the most liberated, secular and artistic cities in the Arab world, and it seems that with JAM’s strict Islamic stranglehold gone, better times have arrived. Couples can walk the streets holding hands, women have replaced face veils with liberal coatings of make-up and shops openly sell curvaceous evening gowns. On Thursday evening, the start of the Muslim weekend, the streets and restaurants were filled with people keen to enjoy nights now free from bomb blasts and gunfire. Two floating restaurants have even taken station on Basra’s famous cornice, where couples and families happily wander to the fairground.
“Last year we would have been dead at least 10 minutes ago if we had sat here,” said Col Richard Stanford, as half-a-dozen British officers shed their body armour and deposited themselves at a table in the once notorious Hayyaniya district. Across the street was a long wide strip of green that the insurgents had used as a firing point for rockets and mortars. In fact, this was the scene of some of the toughest street-fighting the British Army has experienced since the Second World War. Yet here we were, chatting to the locals and sipping sweetened black tea.
Basim Mizshed, the owner of the café, spoke of a “terror” under the JAM, with murders, rapes and kidnappings. He added: “I want the British to go, because we are free and civilised people and we now have our own army to protect us. We extend our thanks and appreciate what you have done, but now we would like you to leave us.”
Despite the current calm, what will do most to secure Basra is economic revival, and an administration that uses the area’s vast oil wealth to deal with the problems known as “Sweat” – sewage, water, electricity and trash. Then there is the intelligence that JAM is drifting back to the city and is ready for a campaign of political assassinations centred around the provincial elections on Jan 31.
But those are issues for the Iraqis now. British minds are turning to the lessons that can be learned from our time here – and many are drawing the worrying conclusion that the British Army is struggling to adapt to the new realities of warfare. While the Americans reformed their army into a well-honed counter-insurgency force, we looked on. We are spending billions on aircraft carriers, submarines and advanced technology when today’s fight is right in front of us.
Support for this argument comes from the fact that our greatest success in Basra was largely a copy of an American model: the Military Transition Teams (MiTTs). Under this system, platoons of 30 British troops looked over the shoulders of 600 Iraqis, providing training, professionalism and reassurance without belittling the Iraqis’ strong sense of national and personal pride.
Nigel Haywood, the Consular General in Basra, argues that despite the setbacks, there would have been no army to fight the insurgents without the training provided by British troops. “We beat ourselves up about this, but the military have done an astonishing job in appalling circumstances,” he told me.
We might indeed come to look upon Basra as a success story – but if we are to win out in the far more challenging arena of Afghanistan, then the Army had better change, and change soon.
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