Sunday, March 8, 2009
They were on the verge of humiliation – but now British troops believe they can depart southern Iraq with their mission accomplished. Sean Rayment goes to Basra to assess their legacy.
On a balmy spring evening in early May 2007, a small and isolated British outpost in the centre of Basra was attacked by more than 200 insurgents. The militiamen – followers of the Iranian-backed Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr – had a simple plan: kill all of the 40 soldiers inside the base.
Had it been successful, the attack would have amounted to "strategic failure" for Britain in Iraq, and a retreat from the country would have been inevitable.
For more than four hours, the troops inside the Provincial Joint Coordination Centre (PJCC) fought off wave after wave of attack. Those inside the base later said that the British machine-gun barrels had glowed red after firing more than 9,000 rounds and killing dozens of insurgents.
Although the attack failed, it signalled to the British that the militias had the capability to plan, mount and launch large-scale operations without their knowledge. It was also the first real sign that the Iraqi Army would struggle to control the streets once the British had gone.
Most of the insurgents who took part in that attack almost two years ago came from the Hyaniyah area of Basra, one of the most deprived parts of the city.
But much has changed in Basra in the past 18 months, especially in the Hyaniyah. Where once street battles were fought, today British soldiers are working hand-in-glove with their Iraqi colleagues, opening schools and developing strategies for clearing rubbish. The troops are regarded as heroes and liberators and are greeted with smiles and handshakes from Iraqi civilians.
The transition is, according to both Iraqis and the British, nothing short of stunning. In some areas of the city, the property market is soaring, with some exclusive homes costing $400,000. One local businessman has built a hotel costing $15 million. There are even plans to create the city's first casino.
Major General Andy Salmon, the Commander of the Multinational Division in Basra, believes the war was worth the sacrifice of the 179 British servicemen and women who have so far died fighting in Iraq. He also believes it is now time for the British military to return home.
Maj Gen Salmon, a Royal Marine, has been involved in operations in Iraq for the past 18 years. He will be the last senior British officer to command in southern Iraq.
At the end of March, the long-awaited withdrawal will begin and an estimated 2,500 US troops will replace the British inside the Contingency Operating Base (COB), to be renamed Camp Charlie. By the end of July, virtually all British troops will have pulled out.
"It is a case of mission accomplished," Maj Gen Salmon told The Sunday Telegraph. "The Iraqis now effectively run their own affairs. They control the streets, and the militias have more or less been defeated."
He believes that, with the right investment, Basra could become a major international city, like Dubai. "It's close to Iraq's only deep-water port, it sits at the top of the Persian Gulf, and it has a rail link which extends to the Turkish border, so it's knocking on the door of the EU. I'm very confident that in 10, maybe 20 years' time, this place will be transformed – and a large part of that is down to the British troops who served here.
"We have achieved what we set out to do. We have got the Iraqi 14 Division up and running to manage security by itself. We have handed over Basra International Airport. We have created a secure and stable environment for social and political development to take place.
"Everyone should be rightly proud of what has been achieved. There have been ups and downs but that is the same in any campaign. There is still a lot of work to help investment to take place, and we need to help British investors to get in. The sacrifices of our mates have not been in vain, so in that respect it has been worth it."
But when the last soldier flies out of Basra for the final time, others will question that assessment.
The Iraq War not only divided the nation, it also soured relations with Britain's European allies. The conflict lasted longer than the Second World War, cost the taxpayer in the region of £8 billion and tarnished Tony Blair's legacy; it showed that the US-led coalition had the power to topple a dictatorship but that it lacked the foresight to plan for a lasting peace. It exposed failings in the highest levels of military planning, and the battle for Basra almost left the British armed forces humiliated.
So as the 4,100-strong British force prepares to leave, what is Britain's legacy in southern Iraq?
In 2003, following the Coalition invasion, a region centred on Basra came under British control. Initial joy among the local Shia population at the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime turned to frustration and, on occasion, to violence.
In August 2007, Basra Palace, the British Army's last base in the city, was given up to Iraqi provincial control and the British withdrew to the Contingency Operating Base six miles from the city. The ceremony was sombre. Many British troops had died in the weeks leading up to the handover as the militias, most notably the Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) led by al-Sadr, fought to seize control of the city.
The controversial pull-out was the end to a politically motivated mission to get British troops out of Iraq as quickly as possible. While the plan looked good on paper, the reality was different.
Within weeks of the British handover, the Iraqi Army in Basra had lost control of the streets – a devastating blow for the British generals who had planned on the assumption that it was a competent fighting force. In Baghdad, American officers accused the British of jeopardising the security of southern Iraq; it was the British Army's lowest point in the entire campaign.
Basra descended into chaos, intimidation and murder were rife, women were executed for merely looking "too western", and the COB faced rocket and mortar attacks almost hourly.
Britain had once prided itself on its counter-insurgency strategy, but the failure to defeat the militias in Basra forced British generals to accept that the lessons they had learnt after 30 years of fighting in Ulster were no longer relevant.
The militias' rule lasted until March 2008 when Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi president, ordered his army to retake the city in "Operation Charge of the Knights". After a series of false starts, the militias were eventually forced out in May last year.
Today, Basra and southern Iraq are both relatively stable. The "monopoly of violence", according to Maj Gen Salmon, is now in the hands of the Iraqi Army.
One of the most competent officers in the Iraqi army is Colonel Khalid, the commander of 26th Brigade's 3rd battalion. The word among the British is that nothing happens on his patch without his knowledge or approval. Colonel Khalid is charged with the responsibility of controlling the Hyaniyah.
Home to around 600,000 people, this former militia stronghold is one of the most impoverished and densely populated areas in the whole of Basra, built by Saddam Hussein to house tens of thousands of Marsh Arabs "cleansed" from their historical home along the Shatt al-Arab. Today, it languishes at the bottom end of Third World poverty. Here, flocks of sheep feed off rubbish piles, unemployment stands at around 40 per cent, and the stench from open sewers, where bare-footed children play, hangs in the air.
"Today, the Hyaniyah is safe," Colonel Khalid told The Sunday Telegraph. "The insurgents have gone. They know that we will arrest them or kill them if they return. Some have been killed, others arrested and some have gone to Iran. The people here do not want them any more."
After the "Charge of the Knights", the British Army returned to Basra to work alongside the Iraqi army in Military Transition Teams (Mitts). Their role is to gently advise the Iraqi army on how to win the consent of the people. Around 850 British troops are still involved in "Mitting" around Basra, but as each day passes the role of the British diminishes.
When Brigadier General Sabah, the commander of 26 Brigade, opened the new Haleema Al Saadeyah school last Saturday, he was greeted by several hundred schoolgirls all screaming "Viva Iraq! Viva Iraq!". The adulation he and his men received is yet further proof of the trust the Iraqi public now has in its army. Once an ill-disciplined and incompetent rabble, today it is a confident and professional force, which has the support of around 97 per cent of the population.
Brig Sabah says he is grateful for the help from the British and for "the sacrifices of your soldiers". But, he says, the time has now come to leave.
"We no longer need any help from anyone. We are not ungrateful, we are thankful to our friends who released us from Saddam's prison. Your sacrifices and our sacrifices have helped us to get to where we are now. But now we can run Basra. We control Basra now."
Despite the optimism, the city's future remains uncertain. There is real concern in and around Basra that the insurgents could profit from growing discontent over the lack of jobs, especially among young males.
On Leaf Island, which lies to the north-west of Basra, Sabbah, a 22-year-old fisherman, complains about the lack of work.
"It is good that the militias have gone. But I have no work – neither do any of my brothers or their friends. If we don't get work soon, the militias will return and they will say 'Come and work for us, we will pay you', and some of the young men will go."
While troops in Basra prepare for the final withdrawal from Iraq, the nation's military chiefs are now focused on an even greater challenge: Afghanistan. The Iraq War and the conflict in Afghanistan are often grouped together but remain very different problems. It is difficult to draw lessons from the Iraq campaign that might also be relevant in Afghanistan because the countries and the insurgencies are vastly different. But one of the reasons why Britain almost lost the Battle of Basra was because there were too few troops on the streets.
David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said last week that the war in Afghanistan was "not a numbers game". Well, commanders in Iraq disagree. Just about all the senior British officers in Iraq to whom I spoke agreed that more troops needed to be sent to Helmand to ensure that the mistakes made in Iraq should not be repeated in Afghanistan.