Friday, March 20, 2009

Basra lives in hope, but with sparse thanks for British forces - Times

British troops in Basra are packing up their kit and bidding farewell to Iraqi colleagues as they prepare to pull out of a country in terrible disrepair but hopeful for the future.

Britain’s legacy will be far removed from the lofty ambitions of nation-building of 2003. Shoots of recovery are starting to emerge, but Iraqis say that they will more likely remember the British presence for the Iranian-backed insurgency that raged in southern Iraq until last year.

British commanders, in contrast, say that the mission was a success. Saddam Hussein was removed from power, a democratic Government was installed and Iraqis have the means to rebuild their country.

A triumph or a failure, the Iraq campaign has, since the 2003 invasion, cost the lives of 179 British military personnel (136 killed by hostile fire), more than 4,000 US soldiers — and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Billions of pounds of British and American taxpayers’ money have been spent — much of it on failed projects.

Abu Muhammad, a middle-aged man who runs a snack stall at the Shatt al-Arab waterway that winds through Basra, has few kind words for the outgoing British Forces:
“What will we remember them for? The destruction and damage they caused.”

The aftermath of Britain’s involvement in Iraq bears little resemblance to its two previous occupations over the past century, which left behind railways, bridges, hospitals and refineries.
British officials say that the objective this time was different: to give Iraqis the knowledge and capacity to do the work themselves through, for example, building up its armed forces and empowering the Government.

This nuance is lost on most people, who credit Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, for reviving their fortunes when he began an operation last March (backed by US and British forces) to rid Basra of the militias — something that they believe Britain had been unable to do for lack of resources and political will.

“Security is much better than a year ago,” said Forkan Imad, a 21-year-old geography student at Basra University. Militiamen “used to forbid girls from wearing trousers but they have gone now”, she said, referring to one of the strict Islamist codes imposed during the years of militia rule.

Whether history recalls the British role in southern Iraq with disdain or kindness, huge gains have been made in Basra over the past 12 months. Streets once shuttered in fear now bustle with commerce, roads throng with cars and people speak with cautious optimism. Britain can take some credit: British troops helped to train the Iraqi soldiers who maintain security. Yet they also recruited and trained many of the policemen who turned out to be members of the militia.

“People will write whatever they want to write. They will airbrush us out if they want to,” said Brigadier Tom Beckett, deputy commander of British Forces in Basra. “The reality is we were three nations involved in this — there were the Iraqis, there was us and the Americans — in different ways.”

The calm is allowing meaningful reconstruction finally to take place. British officials are also wooing foreign investors and helping the Iraqis to understand dull but important concepts such as budget control.

“I don’t think our role has been or should be to make Iraqis grateful to Britain,” said Keith MacKiggan, from the Department for International Development, who heads a joint British-US reconstruction team in Basra.

“I think our role has been and should remain supporting the structural and economic development of Basra in the best way, not the most dramatic way.” At the same time, British Forces have tried to make quick, visible improvements to people’s lives, to win “hearts and minds”.

The problem in the past was that they dealt with unreliable Iraqi contractors who failed to give value for money in projects to paint schools, refurbish courtrooms or mend roads. Security, until last April, was so bad that British officials could not check on progress, leaving their Iraqi beneficiaries disappointed.

“The projects were unconstructive and did not serve Basra well,” said Mustafa Atier Risan, a member of the newly elected Basra Provincial Council, which will be responsible for much reconstruction work.

“The money being spent simply went into the pockets of the contractors,” he said, an allegation supported by Abdulrutha al-Timeemi, 42, who owns a construction company in Basra. “If you calculate the money spent, there is no way so much could have gone on such little work. It was enough to build a whole city, not a small bridge or pavement,” he said.

Keen to make the most of Britain’s closing days as part of an occupying force in Iraq, the military has pursued initiatives to clear rubbish-strewn streets and create jobs. Officers are also able to monitor reconstruction projects more closely thanks to the absence of militiamen armed with rockets.

Most importantly, Britain has the help of the much bigger and better-funded US Army, which has been rotating into the main British base just outside Basra in recent months to take over from the British once they leave.

At a teeming market in a small town north of the city, Iraqi carpenters are building a drainage channel through the centre of a structure that is to become a fish market.

Local traders think that the £350,000 British-US initiative is a great idea but say that it is too little too late to salvage the reputation of the coalition, which — they say — has brought little else to the town of al-Qurna since 2003.

Assad Abid Ali, 24, said that people had hoped the British would start a sports club, “but our hair grew white waiting for something to happen”. Another pet project for the departing British is an £8.3 million scheme to build a bridge across the Shatt al-Arab waterway that feeds into Basra’s seaport, the only port in Iraq.

Dreamt up by an American officer, backed by Major-General Andy Salmon, the top British commander in the South, and paid for by the Iraqi Government, the bridge will be constructed by an Iraqi steel company, with a little help from Mott MacDonald, a British consultancy firm.

“This is just the start, but when you are fulfilling dreams you have to start somewhere,” General Salmon told a meeting this week to discuss the bridge.

Britain had stamped a rather unfortunate legacy on Ibn Majeed, the steel company making the structure. Haitham Aouda, the quality-control manager, said that British tanks had struck the factory during the invasion because Iraqi soldiers were near by. All the employees fled, leaving the premises open to be looted and burnt.

But Mr Aouda seems happy to be working with British and US forces now: “Everything has changed. You must forget these problems.”

Another focus for British troops has been rebuilding the Iraqi Army and Navy. “The biggest success by the British was the skills they imparted on us,” said one Iraqi commander in Basra. Asked what he felt had been their biggest failure, he echoed a common complaint: “They were not very strong with the militias.”

By the end of the month, General Salmon will hand command to an incoming US general. Most of Britain’s 4,100-strong force — down from 45,000 at the start of the invasion — will head home over the following four months. Thousands of US troops will be geared up to start working on a legacy for Basra of their own.

Staying on

— First occupation, 1914-32 British Forces invaded the land now known as Iraq while it was part of the Ottoman Empire

— Second occupation, 1941-47 British Forces, which had maintained bases in Iraq, invaded again to ensure the continuation of oil supplies during the Second World War

— Third occupation, 2003-04 British and United States forces invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003, in the hunt for weapons of mass destruction. Sovereignty was officially returned to the Iraqi Government in June 2004 but many Iraqis believe that the occupation will not end until all foreign forces leave

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