By Andrew England in Basra
On the streets that lead into Hayaniah, Basra’s most notorious slum, small groups of Iraqi soldiers man a string of checkpoints, peering into vehicles and sometimes questioning drivers.
At some of the posts sit US-donated Humvees or armoured personnel carriers, now with Iraqi flags and surrounded by coils of razor wire. These, combined with the frequency of the checkpoints, add to a sense of militarisation in the area.
However, the fact that the soldiers are deployed in Hayaniah – once a no-go area and hotbed of militia activity – is seen as a sign of true progress for the Iraqi army.
Building on the security gains highlighted by last month’s peaceful provincial elections and continuing the development of Iraq’s fledgling security forces will be critical to its stability as the US and Britain look to withdraw their troops.
It is in areas like this that the Iraqi forces could be severely tested. The slum is notorious as a stronghold of the Mahdi Army, the militia nominally loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric.
It saw some of the heaviest fighting last year as the army sought to wrest control of Basra from the militias.
An air of caution still hangs over Hayaniah, but there is little doubt that today Basrawis have a renewed sense of security because of the offensive which has been dubbed Charge of the Knights.
Its success was an important factor behind the strong showing of the political bloc backed by Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, at last month’s elections.
There are lingering questions about whether the militias were defeated or simply melted away, and the operation did highlight the Iraqi security forces’ weaknesses as well as their gains.
Iraqi troops had to depend on help from coalition forces, not least logistics support for food, water and ammunition, experts say. Both the army and police also suffered desertions, estimates of which vary from hundreds to more than 1,000.
Western and Iraqi military officials say the army has made progress in the months since, improving its command and control structures and its logistics capacity. However, they acknowledge a lack of strength in depth at both officer and non-commissioned officer levels.
An Iraqi army officer says the biggest problem is the army’s lack of heavy equipment and complains of “tank drivers without tanks”.
He also expressed concern that any future wrangles between the political parties in government could affect the military’s effectiveness.
But it is the police that are the biggest concern in Basra. Before the Charge of the Knights campaign, they were seen as a part of the problem – a force infiltrated by militias and often suspected of involvement in killings and kidnappings.
During the operation, many police fought alongside the militias and some 4,000 were dismissed because of ties to the Mahdi Army. A police officer undertaking forensic training in Britain says the force has improved, but that militia members remain in high positions.
Significantly, he shares many Basrawis’ fears that the militias could well resurface – given the opportunity.
“They [militias] do nothing now . . . but they are only waiting for the lion [American troops] to leave and the rat to come back to their position again,” he says.
Asked if the police could control Basra if the army pulled out, both he and a colleague shake their heads.
The officer blames the US-led coalition for the problems, arguing that it asked the political parties, many of which have their own militias, to choose who should be in the force. “And suddenly I find myself serving the militia.”
Some British officials say there was no proper training plan, and that the coalition was seduced by the number of recruits rather than their talent and ability.
US military police are being drafted in to provide additional training. But there are also complaints about the interior ministry’s inability to supply the force with everything from pens to bullets. It will take much work before many Basrawis put their trust in the police.
“The police were hiding under their blankets [when the militias roamed Basra] and if the army goes the Iraqi police will return to their blankets,” says one.