Monday, February 16, 2009

Basra gets better beds and burgers as US takes over from the British - Times

The last of the Challenger tanks are in the cargo bays and the Basra airport base has been renamed Camp Charlie. After six years and 136 deaths from enemy fire, the British are packing up in Iraq and coming home.

Although Britain's mission does not end formally until May 31, when American forces take over, all the heavy equipment, including 500 vehicles, has been shipped back to Southampton.

The first British troops from the 4,100-strong force will return home next month as part of the transition programme, known as Operation Archive. There are already 2,000 Americans in Basra preparing for their own mission.

The withdrawal operation was described by Major-General Andy Salmon, the British commander of Multinational Division Southeast, as “radical housekeeping”.

“This is one of the largest military transition programmes undertaken for many years,” General Salmon, a Royal Marine, told The Times. “There's a lot of tidying up and auditing to do. I need to make sure that we move stuff out in good order. It's a big logistic challenge. Everything has to be sent back home, properly manifested and labelled.”

The activity has brought a distinct end-of-an-era feeling to Basra. The American troops have changed the name of the Basra airport base from Contingency Operating Base to Camp Charlie and introduced their Mail Post Exchange shopping malls and burger bars.

The Americans have even rejected the concrete-roofed, bomb-proof beds inside basic huts and produced plans for more salubrious sleeping arrangements, happy in the thought that the chances of being rocketed or mortared in their beds are now negligible.

The Americans are taking over the base with a divisional headquarters to run the new Multinational Division South (all provinces in the south), absorbing what has been Britain's area of operations into a nationwide network of forces.

Life is so quiet in Basra that the US chiefs in Baghdad have not yet decided whether it is necessary to send a top general down to Camp Charlie to take charge. Conscious of the relative tranquillity of southern Iraq, the Americans have also reduced their southwards deployment to about 2,500, about half the British presence.

Apart from guarding their rear — protecting the convoys from Kuwait to Baghdad — the Americans have military police taking on the training of the Iraqi police force and will also have special Customs advisers serving with the Iraqi border force along the frontier with Iran.

The realisation that the British are leaving seems not to bother the people of Basra city, who now no longer worry about security. They do complain that they still have limited electricity supplies, jobs are scarce and the sewerage system is dire.

The British-trained Iraqi Army 14th Division units charge around the city in American Humvees, displaying supreme confidence in their new independence — albeit with a singular lack of appreciation of other road users. The British just watch and advise.

No comments: