July 28, 2007

British Withdrawal From Basra: Is They Is, or Is They Ain't?

Hatched by Dafydd

The British are beginning to withdraw from patrolling and policing Basra province, starting with the capital city of Basra; the question is whether the Shia there are or are not ready for self rule.

First of all, this clearly is more fallout from what the lads at Power Line call "the Browning of Britain," the replacement of Tony Blair by new Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Brown, like the rest of the Labour Party, has never been as gung-ho about the Iraq war as was Blair; so it was inevitable that with the passing of the Blair-era (the Blaira?), Britain would begin easing out of Iraq.

But that's not necessarily bad. After all, neither we nor the Brits ever intended 2003 to presage the colonization of Iraq -- no matter what the Democratic rabble thought (or hoped). What would be bad, however, is if it turns out the Brits are leaving too soon, based upon political rather than military calculation. And on that question, there is no consensus:

As American troop levels are peaking in Baghdad, British force levels are heading in the opposite direction as the troops prepare to withdraw completely from the city center of Basra, 300 miles to the south.

The British intend to pull back to an airport headquarters miles out of town, a symbolic move widely taken by Iraqis as the beginning of the end of the British military presence in southern Iraq....

Skepticism is widespread in Basra, as in Baghdad, about whether Iraqi forces are ready to take over. Both the British and Americans will have to assuage the fears of Iraqis that they are being abandoned to gunmen and religious extremists. And both are likely to face intensified attacks from propaganda-conscious enemies trying to claim credit for driving out the Westerners.

Basra is much more culturally monochrome than, say, Baghdad, where our counterinsurgency is centered; the former is almost entirely Shiite. This means there is little of either the specifically sectarian violence (Iraq Shia killing Iraq Sunni for supposed collaboration with al-Qaeda) or of al-Qaeda style mass-casualty bomb attacks. But they have their own problems, summed up by one British civilian official:

“Basra is a totally different environment from what the Americans are facing,” said a British official in Basra. “The problem here is gangsterism, not violent sectarianism. And a foreign military is not the right tool for closing down a mafia.”

Iraqis expressed the same view, saying that militia leaders in Basra typically act more like bandits and extortionists, lining their pockets rather than instituting a Taliban-style religious state. But an unchecked "mafia" can be just as deadly:

“Right now the militias are busy concentrating on getting the British Army out of Iraq,” he said. “After that is done they will turn on the people and try to control them in a very difficult way.” ["He" is "Riyadh, a 22-year-old Iraqi and Basra native who is an interpreter for the British."]

“They will kill people who don’t do what they want,” he added. “There will be no punishment by courts; they kill people on the streets.”

But he acknowledged that if British troops stayed they would be sucked into further deadly confrontations with militias using civilians as cover, leading to inevitable innocent casualties and more hostility.

“If they leave, the militias will eventually fall apart,” he said. “There will be no reason to join them because they will not be fighting the British Army.”

This is what the British hope, but cannot guarantee, will happen.

And that's what makes the withdrawal from Basra so interesting, anent the Iraqi security forces: "Is they is, or is they ain't" ready to take over?

This will be an excellent, if scary, test of the Iraqi National Police and the local police; I do not expect them to pass with the proverbial flying colors; but at least we'll learn whether they're headed in the right direction and what areas still need improvement. The question is, can the Iraqi police, likely infiltrated by Shiite militias, clean up the corruption caused by those same militias?

If so, that would be an incredibly hopeful sign. If they can make at least some progress, that would be encouraging; but if they gleefully join in the looting of the oil-rich province, then that would be a flashing neon warning sign that the Iraqis are not yet ready for prime time.

So keep watching the skies...

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, July 28, 2007, at the time of 5:49 PM

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The following hissed in response by: RichB

Regardless of what happens in Basra, the result will have a significant impact on how General Petraus' report is viewed by Congress in September. If Basra inches toward the dark side, then a good case could be made that US forces need more time because the situation up north is much more difficult. If Basra remains relatively stable (a defintion needed here!), then one

argue that the US should be able to withdraw sooner than later. However, either conclusion needs to consider the differences between Basra and Baghdad and it's doubtful most people in Washington will want to include that in their review process. It would be too much like work and in many cases I suspect their minds are already made up.

The above hissed in response by: RichB [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 28, 2007 7:48 PM

The following hissed in response by: lisan

You may want to read this from Captain's Journal on the Brits in Basra. http://www.captainsjournal.com/2007/07/23/calamity-in-basra-and-british-rules-of-engagement/

Yes, a large part of the problem is criminal in nature, but as pointed out in this post, "Southeastern Iraq has long been under the de facto control of SCIRI and Sadr factions. The British effectively lost any opportunity to shape a secular and nationalist Basra in the summer of 2003, and the US defeat of the Sadr militia in March and April 2004 never extended to the southeast and Basra area."

At the moment, in my mind at least, the big cloudy spot on the horizon of Iraq is the South. And what the Plan is for getting it back under control I hope is something more than wishful thinking by the Brits, or by us.

The above hissed in response by: lisan [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 28, 2007 8:25 PM

The following hissed in response by: Mike

Even if the Iraqi police aren't quite ready, this may not be a bad idea. The Mahdis have no political unity, so without a common enemy, they'll splinter and fight criminal turfwars.

All the militias, criminals, and police will reach their own balance of power down there. It won't be pretty to look at, but I don't believe it'll be much worse than most 3rd world cities.

The above hissed in response by: Mike [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 28, 2007 10:46 PM

The following hissed in response by: YOURMOMMA

Basra is, or could become, a big worry. But,I hope that sometime today, tribute will be paid to the Iraqi soccer team for their win over Saudi Arabia in the final game for the Asian Cup. This is such good news for Iraq;this team has worked so hard and this is a historic step for their country. For many, sports are irrelevant on the world's stage. However, sports can be measures of hope and determination, and better yet, models of teamwork, which is what Iraqi Police and Army need now in Basra, as the Brits hand over their authority.

The above hissed in response by: YOURMOMMA [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 29, 2007 11:46 AM

The following hissed in response by: Terrye

American cities have had their problems with out of control crime syndicates and it did effect the politics of those cities.

So, we should not be surprised if an Iraqi city faces the same kind of problems, with something of the wild west thrown in as well.

We will find out if they can handle it or not, and while I am concerned about the influence of the Iranians and Sadr's people, we have to remember that the people of the region are Shia..if we are waiting for them to not be influenced by these people the Brits will be there forever.

The above hissed in response by: Terrye [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 29, 2007 3:01 PM

The following hissed in response by: howardhughes

Sometimes solutions to problems are obvious. What is obvious is that the United States has been asked and tasked by the rest of the world to accomplish a mission against terrorism that is beyond our capacity to fulfill. And we have accepted a responsibility that our citizenry is unprepared to accept. We must, therefore, revisit our treaties with our allies. First we must propose withdrawing some of our forces from Germany, Japan and South Korea. Withdrawals would be offset by like contributions of troops to Iraq. Second we must construct and set into motion an African treaty group to combat terrorism and anarchy on the African continent similiar to NATO.
Third we must give more promotion to our efforts against war, disease and natural disastor in the rest of the world. Finally we must convince our allies that we will continue to honor our treaties with them including the nuclear umbrella as well as tactical, logistic and strategic assistance. As times change and people get older, new commumications with our allies will reinvigor our relationships. The time is past however when the U.S. can allow our allies to think we can do it all ourselves.

The above hissed in response by: howardhughes [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 29, 2007 6:51 PM

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