Saturday, January 31, 2009

High hopes for peaceful elections - BBC

By Paul Adams

In the fifth instalment of his week-long diary, BBC diplomatic correspondent Paul Adams discovers high hopes that the elections will go ahead peacefully.

After a week of unbroken sunshine, the clouds gather and it rains. It patters hard on the canvas covering the makeshift solar showers and forms wide puddles around the Mastiff armoured vehicles parked outside. It is cold.

With Saturday's provincial elections taking place, the men of Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment are pretty much confined to barracks. They already keep a low profile in the city, but will be invisible on polling day. Nothing must be allowed to alter the impression that this is an entirely Iraqi affair.

The men are briefed on events in the city. Their area of operations includes numerous polling stations. The Iraqi army is deployed in strength around the city, securing the outer perimeters of polling stations, and no-one here seems to think there will be trouble.

But with a couple of hundred British soldiers still based in the city, and 4,000 stationed nearby, they will respond if the Iraqis ask for help.

Given that the successful holding of provincial elections is one of the conditions the British government has set for the final withdrawal of its troops from Iraq, everyone hopes the day will pass off peacefully.

The men of 1 PWRR are told what will happen if they are called out. A map is displayed here in their base, showing the locations of polling stations.

But everyone is relaxed and most spend the day attending to chores and studying. An education officer is visiting for a few days and she has got the men's noses in their books.

They are not under any obligation to study, but they know that promotion depends on reaching certain educational standards. For many young men who left school early, it is an opportunity to make up for lost time.

Fred and I prepare video material for tomorrow's election coverage and send it over via satellite. It takes hours. Late in the evening we are told by London that something has gone wrong and it all has to be sent again. Glamorous lifestyle, this.

Click here for BBC Online

Friday, January 30, 2009

Basra aiming to turn the corner - BBC

By Paul Adams

In the fourth instalment of his week-long diary, BBC diplomatic correspondent Paul Adams meets the people preparing for the weekend's elections.

Another chance to see the British mentors in action this morning as we visit an Iraqi army battalion headquarters downtown. The 1-50 are housed in a building that should have been a hotel but was never finished.

It is in a sorry state, roof tiles sagging, broken windows, whole rooms upstairs full of rubbish. The water in the swimming pool is an evil shade of green.

But Sgt Maj Jim Leech is not interested in niceties. He wants to know how the base is organised. He casts an experienced soldier's eye over the storeroom and clinic and makes suggestions on how things can be done better. He is unfailingly polite and never remotely patronising.

In a one-time bathroom, grenade launchers are piled in a wooden box. But the gun racks are clean and labelled - everything is checked in and out. Sgt Maj Leech seems satisfied.

Truck loads of 1-50 soldiers are loading sleeping bags and personal kit onto their jeeps. They are off to guard the outer perimeters of polling stations across the city, ahead of Saturday's important provincial elections.

'Critical point'

We drive off, along streets smothered in campaign posters, to a meeting with Hatem el-Bachary, who is heading an independent list and hoping to pick up a few of the 35 seats up for grabs in Basra.

A genial businessman, with company offices in Bradford, he says it is time to invest in the city's future because people are disappointed with what Iraq's politicians have achieved so far.

"This is a very critical point in the democracy of Iraq," he tells me. "They have already wasted five or six years."

Hatem looks out over a fetid canal that runs beside his park and says he dreams of turning Iraq's second largest city into something people can be proud of. He speaks with real passion, but the task is daunting. The city does not seem to have changed much in appearance since I first came here in late 2003.

This evening, we drive into the teeming heart of the city, into streets that have come alive. A year ago, with the city held hostage by fundamentalist militias, Basra was dead after dark. But the government took on the militias and now, despite Basra's myriad problems, the city seems to have turned a corner - for the time being at least.

Hatem is out campaigning. His young team have set up a projector on a corner of broken kerb stones, and a small crowd of curious onlookers is blocking the traffic.

For a man with big ambitions, it is an embarrassing affair. There are endless problems with the projector and the sound, and the screen keeps being blown over in the breeze. Hatem does not seem in the least bit fazed and says it is important for politicians to be out on the street, meeting real people.

It is hard to see how he can break the power of the larger parties in Basra, but he is full of optimism. We leave as the sound system is finally fixed and his campaign song - which seems to consist mainly of his name, repeated over and over - blends with the car horns and bustle of night time Basra.

Click here for BBC Online

Enthusiasm - and wariness - as Basra prepares to vote - Independent on Sunday

By Terri Judd

Basra's mobile phones have been buzzing incessantly for the past few weeks as candidates implore the local population by text message to vote in tomorrow's election.

Today the printing presses that have been churning out leaflets finally fell quiet, their wares now mingling with the sewage that still fills too many of the city's streets.

Across Iraq's second largest city, the British main area of operations for almost six years, pick-up trucks have been circling with loud speakers. Posters of portly men in suits stare down at the locals, a visible difference from the host of severe looking clerics that once dominated the walls.

The enthusiasm of a youthful democracy is palpable as Basrawis face a dizzying array of 1,272 candidates competing for just 35 seats. People lining up at the pomegranate smoothie stalls or perambulating down the riverside corniche have been holding lively, passionate discussions as they prepare to vote.

Queues are expected to be slow going at the cities 3,360 polling stations where the voters will first be faced with a list of the 82 parties before having to consult a booklet of candidates to make their final choice.

Among them is Salah Al-Rekhayis, of the Movement of Free Iraqis, who is bidding to become the first member of the, often overlooked, black community to be voted into power. Mr Al-Rekhayis, from Az Zubayr, a town south west of Basra, insisted that it was the US President Barack Obama who inspired him to run.

While security has improved beyond recognition since Operation Charge of the Knights last March, when Iraqi security forces backed by the Americans and Brits drove the insurgents out of the city, the locals have many issues to challenge their elected representatives about. Why, in such a naturally wealthy country, are they still subjected to problems with sewage, unemployment, electricity and water, they want to know.

But the glee with which the city's 1,340,000 registered voters have welcomed their first opportunity to stand in judgement of the four-year-old provincial government has been tempered by a fear that the violence will return. On Thursday a driver for the sewage department was killed by a roadside bomb in Basra, the third in January. Two Iraqi border police died in earlier attacks.

While the number of incidents are radically down from the days when the militias dominated the city, it is still treble the explosions felt in December and the local security forces have been wary of any outbreaks of intimidation during the election.

All leave has been cancelled for the 28,000 Iraqi police and soldiers who have flooded the city in the lead up to the voting, attempting to convince the population that it is safe to take part. A hotline has encouraged locals to tip the security services off to any militia activity.

The 4,100 British service personnel in the area, who have assisted in planning and mentoring, will be nowhere in evidence tomorrow, deliberately disappearing in favour of their Iraqi counterparts.

However, they will remain alert, ready to provide a quick reaction force or casualty evacuation if the situation explodes.

"We will all be ready if something goes wrong and General Mohammed's troops can not cope but they will cope," said Lieutenant Colonel Dickie Winchester, spokesman for the British forces.

Observers from the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission as well as the Arab League, Turkey, the US and Britain have been monitoring the election.

But the British remain wary of what will happen when the results are announced around 2 February before a two-week challenge period.

Lt Col Winchester explained: "There are no indications that there will be significant violence. The Iraqi Security Forces remain on alert, and are prepared to counter violence, should it break out once the results are issued, in a ‘bad loser' scenario. That said, all major parties – including Muqtada al-Sadr's party – have called on people to vote in large numbers. Noone is boycotting the election and nobody has said anything about violence."

Click here for the Independent on Sunday

Voters prepare to test Iraq’s progress - Financial Times

By Andrew England in Basra

The grey, crumbling walls that line Basra's rubbish-strewn streets and surround scruffy buildings have long stood out as examples of the decay that has taken over Iraq's second city after years of violence and neglect.

Yet today, it is as if they have been injected with a new lease of life as they stand plastered with colourful posters that highlight both the different faces of Iraqi society and the battle hotting up for tomorrow's provincial elections. Alongside images of austerelooking bearded men in clerical robes are headshots of women in brightly coloured veils and businessmen in western-style suits, each vying for a seat in Basra's regional government.

Voters head to the polls for the first time in four years in provincial elections that will give an indication of how far Iraq has progressed, as the nation attempts to move away from years of violence to much-needed stability and reconstruction.

For western officials the elections will be a test of the Iraqi security forces' ability to maintain law and order as both the US and the UK look to withdraw their troops - the former in about 16 months, the latter by the end of July. They will also be an important indicator of whether groups that have fuelled much of the violence in recent years are willing to rely on the ballot box rather than bands of militia.

For war-weary Iraqis, fed up with corruption, mismanagement, killing and kidnappings, the polls offer a glimmer of hope that a new generation of politicians may emerge, with a focus on people's needs rather than the corrupt and sectarian politics that have dominated in the post-Saddam era.

"We want to choose the honest one who works for Iraq, not for himself," says Mohammed, a 19-year-old student.

His words are echoed by others in Basra, which has been ruled by Shia Islamist parties since the last polls in 2005 and is in desperate need of reconstruction. As Mohammed speaks a campaign vehicle zooms past with a loudspeaker relaying a candidate's pledge to rebuild and change the once dynamic port.

Such promises have been made before, only to vanish beneath an upsurge in sectarian violence that threatened to tear the nation apart and a despairing sense of malaise, fuelled not only by the bloodshed, but also by rampant corruption and mismanagement. Caution still prevails and turnout will be an important indicator of how many Iraqis are willing to put their faith in a political process that has produced mainly empty promises.

There are marked changes from 2005, in part illustrated by the swath of campaign posters adorning the streets.

It is the first "open list" election, under which voters get to see the candidates, rather than in 2005 when they simply selected from faceless party lists. Back then, most political groups were based on religion, but tomorrow thousands of independents are taking part with 14,000 candidates competing for 440 seats in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. In Basra, more than 1,200 candidates are competing for just 35 seats, partly a result of security gains that have given candidates the confidence to put themselves forward.

Arab Sunni groups, most of which boycotted the 2005 polls, are involved this time and analysts say the combination of independents and Sunni could go some way to addressing imbalances created four years ago and produce more representative administrations.

In Anbar and Diyala, provinces that were hotbeds of the insurgency, the Awakening Councils, which brought together former Sunni militants to fight against al-Qaeda and who became critical to the US success in stabilising the provinces, will gauge their political strength for the first time.

The provincial vote will act as a bellwether for the main Shia Islamist parties that have dominated the government for the past four years, including the Dawa party of Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the strongest of the Shia ruling parties, before elections for the national parliament scheduled for this year.

Many eyes will be on the Sadrist movement of Moqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shia cleric. His group and the Mahdi Army militia, which is nominally loyal to Mr Sadr, was viewed by many as one of the big threats to Iraq's stability.

The Sadrists have suffered setbacks but are thought to still enjoy strong support among the urban poor. They are not contesting the elections but have endorsed two "independent" lists, the success of which may offer some insight into the extent of influence they retain.

Ultimately, how the losers react could be just as critical as who wins.

Click here for the FT online

Lessons learned on Basra streets - BBC Online

Paul Adams
BBC News, Basra

In the third instalment of his week-long diary, BBC diplomatic correspondent Paul Adams joins US military police as they mentor local officers.

A change of scene this morning, as we're taken to watch the Americans at work. Basra may have been at the heart of the British operation since 2003, but the Americans are here too, doing similar work.

At the Saudia police station in Brehah neighbourhood, we catch up with a squad of military police (MPs) from Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

They're mentoring local policemen, just as our British hosts, a Military Transition Team, are working with the Iraqi army.

'Getting out'

We follow Sgt Collier's men as they shadow an Iraqi patrol down the road to a polling station where members of the security forces - army and police - are already voting in provincial elections (the rest of the population votes on Saturday, and we'll be there to watch).

The streets of this residential neighbourhood are quiet. The American MPs have all seen much more dangerous neighbourhoods during tours elsewhere in Iraq. They seem happy enough to be down in Basra.

They know their British colleagues are getting ready to leave, but there's no apparent resentment.

"You guys are smart. You're getting out early," says a young MP.

Lt Aaron Webb is more circumspect.

"I think it's a false impression. Both our countries have their own timetable when they want to step out of Iraq."

In a spartan, smoke filled office at the police station, another MP is trying to get his head around a complicated crime involving rape, honour and revenge.

There are cultural issues to understand ("Do Christians do honour killings?") and basic policing to check ("Is the prisoner being properly protected?"). The young man from Fort Bragg struggles to take it all in his stride.

Professional pride

From here we drive through the teeming streets of downtown Basra for lunch with 1 Batt, 50 Brigade. Col Haidar is our host and they've pulled out all the stops. A long table groans with platters of rice, lamb and fish.

But the Colonel seems preoccupied. One of his many mobile phones rings constantly.

Almost all his men are out guarding polling stations days ahead of the elections. He knows that even if there is no violence, this weekend is a test of the army's organisational skills.

He also allows himself a little nostalgia. He doesn't express any views on Saddam Hussein (and I'm not about to ask), but he's full of professional pride and he misses being part of a real army.

Back at the old navy base where 50 Brigade and our British transition team share spartan accommodation, most of the men are relaxing. There's physical training to perform, and perhaps a game of volleyball on a malodorous patch of dirt behind our building.

For the article on BBC Online click here

Thursday, January 29, 2009

British say calm Iraq polls key to Basra investment - Reuters

By Mohammed Abbas

BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraq's elections this week will be a crucial test of whether the oil-rich but dilapidated city of Basra is ready for the international investment it desperately needs, British officials said.

Once overrun by gangs and militias vying for control of Iraq's second biggest city, Basra is now quite calm after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered a military crackdown last year.
If the peace holds during provincial polls Saturday, it could mark a turning point for the city.
"The business world is looking quite closely at Basra now, and the elections," the British Consul General in Basra, Nigel Haywood, told Reuters.

"If they go well, that would be a big sign that Basra really is open for business. Obviously the converse may be true (but) the signs are very good at the moment," he added.

Under an agreement with Iraq, British combat troops stationed in Basra province will withdraw by July 31, six years after joining the U.S. invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. They have already pulled back from the city to the nearby airport.

Basra has Iraq's only ports, and most of Iraq's current oil production comes from oilfields in and around the province.

Yet it is strewn with rubbish and pools of sewage, and vast slums have mushroomed around the city. For years after the 2003 invasion, rampant kidnappings and killings kept investors away.
Basra residents say the local council, elected in Iraq's first provincial polls in 2005, has provided little.

A calm election will be key, the British military said.

"If they can get through the election and the Iraqi security forces can deliver a safe post-election scenario, then we can say Basra is stable, and resilient," British military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Dickie Winchester said.

The elections are being supervised and organized by Iraq, but the British are ready to provide support if asked. There are 4,100 British troops in Iraq, and a residual contingent will remain in the country to train local forces after July.

There have been no indications of a surge of violence before or after the polls, said Winchester.
"The security situation is good, it's improving all the time, and with a new provincial council, that should ensure future delivery of economic success," he said.

But one potential British investor said the new council must quickly prove it could deliver improvements after the vote.

"If there is no significant delivery. Then it will blow up," said the investor, who was on a research trip to Basra and declined to be named. "We're not out of the woods yet, we're in the thick of them."

Read the full article on Reuters by clicking here

Independents sense opening in Basra poll - Financial Times

By Andrew England in Basra

With his flashy yellow tie and smart business suit decorated with a lapel badge emblazoned with his smiling face, Hatem Albachary looks very much the part of the campaigning politician.

He talks of the need to resolve Basra’s dire electricity problems, including a plan to lure investors to buy and run generators, tackling the city’s high unemployment and improving rundown water services.

Mr Albachary hopes to dilute the influence of the religious parties that have dominated Basra and the other southern provinces since the 2005 elections.

“After 2005, what benefits did the normal Iraqi, the poor Iraqi, get?” he says “Nothing. We are looking forward to our next generation – it’s very important we get the right leaders.”

Mr Albachary is one of scores of “independents” contesting Saturday’s elections, hoping to exploit any weaknesses in the support for the Shia Islamist parties that have run the city and been blamed for disastrous corruption and violence.

The independents claim to include technocrats and businessmen that would, if elected, focus on rebuilding Basra, which is critical to the economic health of Iraq.

With its vast oil reserves and the nation’s only access to the sea, Basra highlights the potential of a stable Iraq. But instead the city became a battleground for rival Shia factions fighting for control of its resources.

Influence in the city had been divided between the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the largest and strongest of the Shia groups, the Dawa party of Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, Fadhila, a smaller party that holds the governorship in Basra, and the Sadrist movement of Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric.

Before a semblance of security was restored after the Iraqi military, backed by US and UK forces, launched a massive offensive against the militias last March, different factions controlled the port, the security services and the streets, spreading fear throughout the city. In spite of the bloody history, the main Shia parties are expected to retain ultimate control of the south, partly because of their resources. But even officials with those movements accept that there is a desire for real change.

“People want something to touch with their hands, not promises,” says Shawqi al-Maliki, a candidate for the Supreme Council. “The elections will change the policy map. The winning party will take new views when they serve the people and they will co-operate with them.”

If the Supreme Council does well at the polls, the result could bolster its plans to achieve greater autonomy for the nine southern provinces. It is a position that puts it at odds with the Dawa party, which favours a strong central government and may benefit from the improved standing of Mr Maliki, the prime minister.

Click here for the article on the FT

Ex-war zone prepares for election - BBC

Paul Adams
BBC News, in Basra

In the second instalment of his week-long diary, BBC diplomatic correspondent Paul Adams joins Iraqi troops as they patrol an area repeatedly hit by conflict but now preparing for elections.

Another pre-dawn start as we follow elements of the Iraqi 14th Division down to Safwan, on the Kuwaiti border.

This is where we used to come in and out of Iraq in 2003-04, before the road became too dangerous.

A bright orange sun rises, spectacularly, behind the fierce gas flares of a nearby oil field.

It is a spectacular sight but the convoy sweeps on and my cameraman, Fred, can only dream of what might have been.

Once again, the area is swarming with Iraqi soldiers, but this time there is no specific target.

Col Haidar of the 1st Battalion, 50 Brigade, says it is just a show of strength before Saturday's important provincial elections.

A police counterpart arrives on the scene and the atmosphere is briefly frosty - when the Iraqi army took on Basra's militiamen during intense fighting last spring, two of Col Haidar's men were killed by policemen allied to the militias.

It still rankles.

But food arrives, chairs are provided and the mood lightens. In one of this week's more improbable moments, we eat a breakfast of kebabs in the middle of the busy highway, army jeeps and heavily armed guards ranged about to stop the traffic.

Col Haidar is a veteran soldier and he speaks with a rueful smile of being one of the first Iraqi soldiers into Kuwait during Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion (which triggered the first Gulf War).

Bloodshed and hardship

Safwan has seen armies come and go since then.

The retreating Iraqis were harried by coalition forces as they were bundled out of Kuwait in 1991 (some of the military wreckage which litters the desert around here almost certainly dates from that harrowing episode).

A dozen years later, coalition forces raced north from the same stretch of border. Local people watched and waved and the British imagined that this might not be so hard.

Now, after almost six years of bloodshed and great hardship, the British are getting ready to leave.

The mentoring team I am embedded with will probably be gone within weeks and the huge logistical task of evacuating the British headquarters out at the airport has already begun.

A few miles to the west, we can see trucks moving south along Route Topeka, the coalition's main supply route from Kuwait. By June and July, it will be even busier.

Back in Basra, we pause to take in streets festooned with garish election posters.

A bewildering array of candidates and lists gazes down on the city, but the population seems cynical about the ability of politicians to improve their lot.

Fred's camera comes out and soon we are surrounded by an animated crowd, bombarded from all sides by passionately held views on politics and the war. Are the British entitled to leave with honour, I ask?

The response is decidedly mixed. Yes, Tony Blair and George Bush brought us a kind of democracy, they say, but what good has it really done us?

British and Iraqi soldiers look on from a polite distance, but no-one interferes and the Basrawis are free to speak their minds.

Click here to see the article on BBC Online

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

UK troops in Iraq ponder legacy - BBC

In a cavernous single room, with a grubby tiled floor and two rows of imposing columns, 50 British soldiers eat, sleep and go about their duties.

Outside, four vast Mastiff armoured vehicles and a sand-filled blast barrier guard the entry.

The British are here as guests of the Iraqi army - the rest of the old navy base, close to the Shatt al-Arab waterway, is home to 50 Brigade - but the basic habits of security are deeply ingrained.

The British have had their ups and downs here in Basra, but since law and order was restored to the city after fierce fighting between the Iraqi army and local militiamen last spring, life has been less eventful.

The bulk of the British contingent, about 4,000 troops, are out at the city's airport, well out of view of the local population.

But about 200 are still in the city, embedded with Iraqi army units in low-profile "MiTTs" (Military Transition Teams). Their job is to mentor and advise the army as it learns to stand on its own two feet.

Another 650 British soldiers are working in MiTTs outside the city.

'Big task'

The teams are tiny - most of the 50 camped out at the naval base are there for force protection - and they are measuring the progress of their Iraqi counterparts according to a country-wide set of standards - an Operational Readiness Assessment - set by the US-led coalition in Baghdad.

The British say they are impressed with the mounting confidence of the Basra-based 14th Division, and this week they were pleasantly surprised to see large-scale search operations conducted in the lawless town of Az-Zubeir.

But there is still some way to go, which is hardly surprising for an army defeated, disbanded and then reconstituted from scratch by an invader-turned-ally.

"They've developed some kind of dependency on us," says Maj Adrian Grinonneau, from the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment.

"We've got to wean them off that in a very short space of time and that's a big task."

But as the date for the departure approaches, there is another problem.

When the last British soldiers leave Iraq, on or before 31 July, many will wonder what their true legacy is.

Knocking an Iraqi army division into shape is no mean achievement, but is it enough?

Gordon Brown, never this war's greatest proponent, set a limited set of goals last summer - complete the training and mentoring of the 14th Division, hand over Basra airport to civilian control, set the environment for successful provincial elections and help to boost investment. Then leave.

The airport is now in Iraqi hands and work with 14th Division is almost complete.

Elections are imminent and the Foreign Office in London says investment worth £9bn is in the pipeline although Basra's filthy streets and open sewers suggest the results may take some time to materialise.

But as the British withdrawal from Iraq begins - some equipment has already been driven out to Kuwait - the Americans are moving in.

They have had small mentoring teams in the city since last August, working with the police, and they will soon take over command of the Basra air station.

To sceptical eyes, it feeds the notion that we are quitting early, leaving the Americans to finish the job.

When I joined an American police mentoring team on patrol through a quiet neighbourhood of Basra Lt Aaron Webb of the 21st Military Police Company said the impression was false, but added: "We're just coming down here to continue on what the British forces have been doing for the last few years."

As the Union Jack disappears and the Stars and Stripes is run up the flagpole, British commanders know the images will appear to tell their own story.

But they insist their own specific tasks are complete and they can leave with honour intact.

The British divisional commander Maj Gen Andy Salmon says his own men tell him it has been worth it.

"They really feel satisfied about being able to look back and say despite the ups and downs and some really difficult periods we're in a really good place."

The British soldiers at Basra's old naval base will be glad to leave their spartan conditions behind and know they will not be around much longer.

Some of them wonder how their work here will be judged.

Click here for BBC Online

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Iraqi army 'ready and able' - BBC Online

Paul Adams BBC News, in Basra

In the first entry of his week-long diary, BBC diplomatic correspondent Paul Adams joins British troops on a raid near Basra as they witness the progress made by the Iraqi Army.
Up before dawn as word comes of an Iraqi army search operation at Az-Zubeir, south east of the city.

The operation involves 50 Iraqi Army Brigade, who our British hosts from the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment are mentoring, so we are invited along to watch.

We race through the deserted streets of Iraq's second largest city, not really knowing what the morning will hold.

The British MiTTs (Military Transition Teams) are not here to direct Iraqi army operations - those days are long gone - but to observe and offer discreet advice.

To keep a low profile, the Brits leave their imposing Mastiff armoured personnel carriers behind and ride in soft-skinned Iraqi jeeps.

They do not want to draw attention to themselves, a lesson from the days when highly visible British soldiers became a magnet for militia attacks.

The job of "mitting" will end soon, probably well before the final British departure date of 31 July, and this certainly feels like the beginning of the end.

Help and equipment

Britain's role in training and mentoring the 14th Iraqi army division is almost done. As this morning's display shows, the Iraqis are organising and conducting their own operations with minimal British support.

To be sure, an RAF Lynx flies up and down the road as we near az-Zubeir, and an occasional whine gives away the presence overhead of a tiny British drone, a Desert Hawk.

Britain is still providing the sort of help and equipment the reconstituted Iraqi armed forces cannot muster.

But as the true size of the raid becomes apparent, causing astonishment among the British soldiers watching, it seems clear the Iraqi army is operating with considerable confidence.
Or at least that is the impression it hopes to convey.

As the sun comes up over the desert, our convoy stretches as far as the eye can see.
It seems that 14 Division has thrown almost everything it has into the operation.
It unfolds at a fairly leisurely pace, with several U-turns and, when we reach the town, a lot of standing around. But the British are still impressed.

"They've got it pretty well locked down," remarks Maj Adrian Grinonneau as we pass street after street blocked off by armoured vehicles and well-armed Iraqi troops.

"This is unprecedented from our viewpoint," he says as more and more troops arrive.
And to emphasise that, this is an Iraqi operation through and through. He adds: "We're not giving them guidance, we're not giving them direction. Operationally, they're mustard [sharp]."
The search, in a dirt poor town with a reputation for lawlessness and violence, yields dozens of weapons, from an ageing Sten gun to an assortment of Kalashnikovs. More than 120 weapons in all.

Some of the house searches look a little staged for our camera and the town's sleepy atmosphere seems at odds with the overwhelming military presence.

But with just five days to go before Iraq's important provincial elections, it seems the army is glad and able to make a big statement. And for the watching Brits, that means that it'll soon be time to go home.

See the report on the BBC website here

Military commitment - Times Online

Mutual respect: the bond between the US and UK Armed Forces has never been stronger

Sir, The mutual respect the US and UK Armed Forces have for each other has never been stronger. Our shared commitment is clear — we are the two greatest providers of troops to Afghanistan. And UK troops have taken the fight to the enemy — clearing insurgents, disrupting enemy communication and destroying weapons and narcotics. These are not the actions of a country with, as Bronwen Maddox claims, no significant help left to give (Commentary, Jan 23).

I cannot speak on behalf on the Americans. That is better left to them. The US Supreme Commander in Afghanistan stated: “I have no plans for by-passing one of our most trusted partners in the mission.” And the US Corps Commander in Iraq said: “What the Brits have achieved in Basra is incredible. We need to take lessons from their approach.” These statements pour cold water on Bronwen Maddox’s view of a “caustic mood” about the UK’s “slither out of Basra”.

Our political and financial commitment to defending our nation remains resolute. Our defence budget is second only to that of the US and this Government has brought the longest period of growth for 20 years. By the end of 2009 will have spent nearly £14 billion on operations since 2001. This is why we can commit to a new generation of aircraft carriers — the only European country to have done so. Also why we have increased helicopter flying hours by 60 per cent, will send 700 more protected vehicles to Afghanistan and have given our troops the best body armour available.

These are not the signs of a country shrinking from defence, but of one committed to maintaining its military capability and working alongside its closest ally now and in the future.

John Hutton

Secretary of State for Defence

See the full article on the Times by clicking here

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Basra rediscovers hope after years of war as British prepare to leave - Telegraph

Basra rediscovers hope after years of war as British prepare to leave

By Nick Meo in Basra

Strolling with his wife on Basra's corniche as a refreshing breeze blew in from the Shatt al-Arab waterway, Aladeen Hassan observed that a year ago enjoying this simple pleasure would have been to invite death.

"If I had come here with my wife then we would have been killed or abducted for sure," Mr Hassan said with a grin. "But now we come here all the time and in the afternoon it is so crowded you cannot find a seat in the cafes.

"Basra has been reborn. The militias have gone, the people are happy, and we have our city back again."

For three years until last March, gangs terrorised Iraq's second city and killed British soldiers in its streets. Criminals looted and kidnapped while the religious zealots of the Mahdi Army enforced a harsh Islamic rule. The streets were so dangerous that Mr Hassan's wife, Thana, spent nearly six years locked in their tiny flat.

"It was like being a prisoner," she said. She would occasionally dart out to a shop, heavily veiled for protection in case she ran into militiamen.

Now Mrs Hassan dares to go out in public wearing makeup, although her modest black abaya still covers her hair and she is careful to wear black gloves.

Elsewhere on the corniche, the walkway along the Shatt al-Arab that is the heart of Basra's social life, courting couples flirt discreetly. Some even dare to hold hands as they watch boats, or come at dusk to gaze romantically at the sun setting behind the date palm groves on the far bank of the waterway.

The mood has lifted business too in the city, raising hopes of reconstruction and an economic takeoff financed by Iraqi oil. It has even fuelled a property boom, perhaps the only one in the world right now, with top-end house prices almost doubling over the last year.

British troops still patrol the city from time to time but security is now in the hands of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police who have flooded Basra's filthy streets ahead of provincial elections next weekend.

Security may be better in the sprawling city of more than one million, but stagnant pools remain in the rutted streets and piles of rubbish are strewn in bazzars, slums and even the best residential areas.

Adding to the chaos, walls, lamp-posts and vehicles are plastered with posters of the candidates. Most are well-fed men in suits, not the scowling fundamentalists in turbans whose stars are waning. A quarter of the candidates are women. Hopes are high that the militia-linked candidates will get nowhere and instead a new and energetic set of politicians will be voted in to run the city.

If that happens and violence is minimal the remaining Iraqi businessmen and professionals who fled abroad when the anarchy was at its worst will return. A peaceful election will also give a green light to hundreds of foreign companies who are ready to move in to the oil-rich province.

The transformation of Basra after almost three decades on the frontline of a series of wars is now a real possibility.

Many Basrans can still hardly believe that their long nightmare could really be over.

Last January Sammi Alta'ee, a 27-year-old translator for British troops, had decided that his only chance of a future was to somehow escape Iraq.

"I'd had enough," he said. "The police were being bullied by the militias, who were so violent and had better weapons than the police. I thought at that time that there was no hope for Iraq and my friends all thought the same.

"Yet now the violence seems to be over and we are seeing the beginning of real reconstruction in our country at last. The people have turned against the militias. They believe the future is good."

That future has been bought at the price of the lives of 178 British soldiers who have been killed since 2003, some in the initial invasion but most in the traumatic and gruelling guerrilla war that followed but which is now over. Soldiers died or were maimed in mortar attacks on their bases and by sophisticated bombs which shot streams of molten metal through the armour of their vehicles.

Now the Army's role is training their Iraqi counterparts as the British prepare to bring their Basra operation to a close and start leaving Iraq in May. Soldiers on their third and fourth tour barely recognise the city they have been sent back to. Mortar and rocket attacks on the British base in Basra Palace have fallen from five per day a year ago to none since November.

Major Jez Mawdsley, of 26 Regiment, Royal Artillery, said: "We're in the endgame now. The lads want to go to Afghanistan."

The officers talk earnestly about their legacy – of helping topple Saddam, struggling to fill the post-invasion power vacuum, and most importantly, training Iraqi security forces who can keep the peace when they have gone.

Frustratingly for the British though, after years of fighting they had a only a minor role in the military operation ordered by the Iraqi government last March which finally drove out the gangs and allowed the transformation of the city to happen.

Thousands of Iraqi soldiers and their US trainers were ordered to finally grapple with the militias in operation Charge of the Knights. After a few nervous days of bitter fighting the gangs broke. Many of their 2000 or so hardcore fighters were killed and the survivors fled to Iran to join their discredited leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, in exile.

Since then, they have barely been seen in the city, their place taken by Iraqi security forces mainly trained and equipped at great expense by the Americans. After the militias were forced out their support evaporated among a population who feared them and were sick of their violence. Few Basrans want them back, although there are fears that the extremists could try again if the new mood of optimism is not bolstered by the reconstruction which was promised in 2003 but never happened.

Now it should do.

The Americans who are increasingly turning up to replace the British in bases in the south have bigger budgets and no war to distract them from reconstruction. They are determined to seal their victory and win hearts and minds by rebuilding.

Captain Robert Lansden, a US Navy captain who arrived in Basra two months ago to construct a bridge, put the American philosophy succinctly.

He said: "Once you've finished killing the bad guys, it's time to spread the love."

click here for the full report on the Telegraph website

Friday, January 23, 2009

Come and play the beautiful game in Al Dayr

The children of Al Dayr, north of Basra, Iraq now have properly constructed playing field thanks to the coalition forces based in Basra, and what better way to open the pitch than a local football tournament?

A badly worn pitch used by hundreds of children, which was very often unplayable after rain, and always uneven and awkward to play on, was situated on the town’s outskirts.

Using money taken from the UK Commanders Contingency Fund the village was gifted a new playing field. The pitch was raised in height to stop flooding in the winter and allow an all year round playing surface.

‘The work improving the pitch has allowed football to be played all year round and give the town of Al Dayr a focus to come together, whatever their background or age’, said the Head Coach, Mr Baasim Kareem Hamaizy.

‘The development of the seating surrounding the pitch and the goals has made it feel like a real football pitch’, one of the players said.

In terms of giving the town a focus and somewhere to go and play the benefits are easy to see, allowing all of the tribes and all age groups to come together and play the beautiful game.

‘This is an amazing day for the people of Al Dayr. The new pitch will see 40 different teams of all ages and tribal backgrounds use it; there will be at least two matches everyday. All the people are truly grateful for all that has been done’, Mr Baasim Hamaizy said.

The pitch was officially opened by Staff Colonel Walled and Sheikh Sarad Farid who cut the ribbon and declared the pitch ‘open for sport’.

The turnout of over 200 people on the day is just the start of a project that enhances life in the area.

Both the ISF and the Al Dayr Emergency Police Battalion were present throughout the event, providing assistance and security in another positive sign that Iraq is capable of standing on its own two feet.

Local dignitaries commented on how pleased the local people were that the British had helped them.

‘We were only assisting the Iraqi people to help themselves. The provision of the football pitch was a gift from the Iraqi people, for the Iraqi people’, said Capt John Gordon who helped Mr Baasim organise the event.

The prize giving saw the winning team presented their trophy by the Commanding Officer of 52 Brigade Military Transition Team, Lieutenant Colonel John Price, 1 Yorks, who was sat with the Iraqi dignitaries throughout. Prizes were given to the runners-up team, the man of the match, the officials and all the locals that assisted in the event.

The Al Dayr Municipal Directorate, Mr Adnan Jassim said, ‘Today has been a huge success and it is great to see so many happy children being able to play the sport they love.’

Thursday, January 22, 2009

British Royal Navy stresses Iraqi training -

The British Royal Navy stressed the importance of training operations with its Iraqi counterpart along the waterways at the Iraqi naval base at Umm Qasr.

The Ministry of Defense described the operations there as a significant link to the Iraqi economy as the Khawr al-Amaya and Basra oil terminals in the south of Iraq account for roughly 90 percent of the gross domestic product of Iraq.

British Royal Navy Capt. Richard Ingram described a bustling port and increased trade activity as the security situation in the country progresses.

"The increased maritime traffic within the commercial port and substantial oil exports from the two (oil terminals) in the Gulf generate a large proportion of Iraq's GDP, and this, in turn, clearly emphasizes the importance of a proficient and enduring Iraqi maritime force in a stable Iraq," Ingram said.

He warned that if his training officers were to redeploy along with the rest of British forces based in Basra, Iraqi naval forces would face serious challenges in securing the ports.

"If we were to leave this summer along with all other (British) forces, then I assess that, although limited maritime operations would continue, there would be a considerable delay to Iraqi navy forces achieving full and effective operations across the full spectrum of required capability," he said.

There are 90 members of the Royal Navy training Iraqi forces alongside members of coalition forces.

To see the article on click here

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

FACTBOX: Q+A on Iraq's provincial elections - Reuters

Iraqis go to the polls on January 31 for the first time in more than three years in milestone local elections that could redraw the country's political map.

Below are some facts about Iraq's provincial elections.


* Iraqis in 14 out of Iraq's 18 provinces will vote to select members of provincial councils, whose duties include choosing provincial governors and provincial administrations.


* Elections in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, which includes three provinces, are expected to take place this year, but no date has yet been set.

* Voting in the oil-producing, ethnically mixed province of Kirkuk was delayed over disputes between Kurds, who want to fold it into their semi-autonomous northern Kurdistan region, and Arabs and Turkmen who want to keep it under Baghdad's control. No date has been set.


* 14,431 candidates are registered, including 3,912 women. They belong to more than 400 parties or groups.

* In past elections, voters were only allowed to choose from party lists. This time, they must pick a party or group, but can also vote for an individual candidate from their selected group if they wish. A complicated formula will be used to allocate seats between lists and among candidates within each list.

* Parties that win three or more seats must give every third seat to a woman.

* Six seats nationally are set aside for candidates from Christian, Shabak, Yazidi and Sabean religious minorities.


* The elections will not only reshape local government but could set the tone for parliamentary elections in late 2009.

* The polls are also expected to change the balance of power among Iraq's Sunni Arabs, many of whom did not participate in the last provincial elections in 2005. Their marginalisation has helped fuel discontent and violence.

* The United States expects that many tribal leaders whose support of "Awakening Councils," neighborhood patrol units instrumental in reining in violence, will win power from other Sunni parties.

* The vote will pit Shi'ite parties that ran as coalition partners in the last Iraqi election against each other. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's small Dawa party will be fighting for influence in southern Iraq against the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), a religious party founded in exile in Iran when Saddam Hussein was still in charge.

* The elections could also help define the influence of Moqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American Shi'ite cleric who commanded a once-powerful militia that was weakened by government offensives last year. Sadr's political front is not presenting its own list in the election but will support individual candidates.

(Reporting by Missy Ryan in Baghdad; Editing by Michael Christie and Samia Nakhoul)

For the full article on Reuters click here

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Royal Navy notch up Iraqi Navy's training

With increased traffic around the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr and substantial oil exports now being undertaken from platforms in the Gulf, the role of the Iraqi maritime security forces is becoming ever more important. Helping train them is a coalition team led by the Royal Navy.

Based within the Iraqi Naval Base at Umm Qasr, in the Al Basrah province of southern Iraq, the Coalition Naval Advisory Training Team (CNATT-UQ) consists of some 90 personnel from the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, British Army, Royal Air Force, US Navy, US Coast Guard and US Marine Corps.

The Royal Navy-led operation exists to train, mentor and advise the re-established Iraqi maritime forces and the coalition staff work alongside their Iraqi counterparts on a daily basis to help the Iraqi Navy and Iraqi Marines 'force generate' and transition to a level where they can provide security for Iraq's territorial waters and ports.

This area is of absolute significance to Iraq's economy as the two major offshore oil terminals (often referred to as OPLATs), Khawr Al Amaya and Al Basrah, and the port of Umm Qasr, account for approximately 90 per cent of Iraq's Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The training programme for the Iraqi maritime forces is now kicking up another notch and a series of high profile visits by the UK and US has recently demonstrated the commitment and importance of this area of work, which will continue after the main bulk of UK forces withdraw from southern Iraq.

Starting off the recent visits was the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, who arrived at the Iraqi Naval Base on board one of the Iraqi Navy's recently-acquired Defender-class Fast Small Boats.

Receiving a briefing on the training being conducted Admiral Band witnessed practical training, including US Coast Guard-led boarding training conducted in the CNATT-UQ built 'Ship in a Box', which consists of stacked containers designed to replicate a merchant vessel's superstructure and internal spaces.

Shortly after Admiral Band's visit, Rear Admiral Thomas A Cropper, Deputy Commander of US Naval Forces Central Command, arrived at Umm Qasr on the US Coast Guard cutter Aquidneck. The ship's presence furthered the aim of bringing more coalition ships alongside in the interests of making such visits normal practice, and allowed useful training with the Iraqi Navy to take place.

The Aquidneck is similar in size to the Iraqi Navy's new patrol ships and a number of tours provided useful first-hand experience for the Iraqi Navy and Marine personnel.

Following this visit, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, accompanied by the Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, made an unannounced visit to see first-hand the Iraqi Navy's progress and to thank CNATT-UQ personnel for their achievements. Mr Brown reinforced the importance of the team and the work they were doing in the continuing regeneration of Iraq.

The CNATT-UQ commander, Captain Richard Ingram RN, gave Mr Brown a strategic brief on the Iraqi Navy's vital roles within the overarching Iraqi security and development strategy. Captain Ingram commented:

"With the pending delivery of 20 more Defender-class Fast Small Boats, as well as the procurement of four patrol ships, and an expected 15 patrol boats and two Offshore Support Vessels, the resulting unprecedented level of growth in capability will allow the transition of responsibility for maritime security to shift from Coalition forces to the Iraqi Navy.

"The increased maritime traffic within the commercial port and substantial oil exports from the two OPLATs in the Gulf generate a large proportion of Iraq's GDP and this, in turn, clearly emphasises the importance of a proficient and enduring Iraqi maritime force in a stable Iraq."

A more recent visit was undertaken by the Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, General James T Conway, who received a brief on the progress of the Iraqi Marines and witnessed several training evolutions.

The sheer number of completed and scheduled high-profile visits to CNATT-UQ will ensure the spotlight remains firmly on the team's mission and commitment. Captain Ingram explained:

"Whilst the drawdown of UK forces has been announced, the CNATT-UQ will remain an enduring British commitment in Iraq, helping to promote security, economic development and the rule of law. If we were to leave this summer along with all other UK forces, then I assess that, although limited maritime operations would continue, there would be a considerable delay to Iraqi Navy forces achieving full and effective operations across the full spectrum of required capability."

The CNATT-UQ's detailed transition plan, combined with a fully-inclusive approach to training delivery, is set to realise capability over time and is very much aligned with the Iraqi Navy's concept of operations.

Captain Ingram added:

"We have a very close relationship with our Iraqi counterparts and have strived to cultivate the environment of co-operation and friendship of which our Prime Minister spoke during his recent press conference.

"This is something we have been doing for some time as we seek to develop personal, professional relationships and engage with the local community wherever and whenever possible.

"The development of a navy from virtually nothing to one capable of defending the essential strategic maritime infrastructure of its country is incredibly rewarding and one my whole team is proud to be involved with. The impact of the CNATT UQ's efforts will result in a capable, efficient and proud Iraqi Navy, and will be felt for many years."

Top Shiite cleric urges Iraqis to vote on Jan. 31 - Associated Press

Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric appealed to Iraqis on Monday to go to the polls in this month's elections but, in a bid to distance himself from religious parties, emphasized he was not supporting any particular candidates.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani enjoys massive support among Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims, and his statement appeared designed to foil persistent attempts by the country's largest Shiite party — the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council — to give the impression that it has his backing.

"The religious leadership stands an equal distance away from all candidates in these elections, but it stresses at the same time that voters must, after thorough checks and examination, choose those who are worthy of becoming members of provincial councils," the Iranian-born al-Sistani said.

He said worthy candidates must be efficient, honest and sincere.

Provincial councils manage the day to day affairs of Iraq's provinces and when the current members were chosen in 2005, the minority Sunnis largely boycotted elections. New councils with a more equitable distribution of seats representing society's makeup are considered a vital step in restoring political stability to the country.

The Supreme Council, led by cleric Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, has in past elections used al-Sistani's image on campaign posters to rally the cleric's supporters to its cause. The use of religious symbols or sites in campaigning has been banned in the Jan. 31 provincial elections, but party leaders have been making a point of mentioning al-Sistani in their campaign speeches to remind voters of their links to the cleric.

Iraqis are set to choose members of ruling councils in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces on Jan. 31. More than 14,000 candidates are running for 444 council seats. Iraqi Kurds have delayed the balloting in the three provinces of their self-ruled region.

Balloting was also suspended in the province around Kirkuk, after the area's major ethnic groups failed to agree on a power-sharing formula.

While preparations moved ahead for the elections, Iraq's political process suffered another setback when parliament announced it was adjourning until next month after failing to choose a new speaker.

The Sunni speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani resigned last month amid widespread complaints about his erratic behavior. Under a power-sharing formula between the country's main ethnic and religious groups, his replacement must be a Sunni Arab. Parliament's main Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, has been unable to agree on a candidate.

Deputy parliament speaker Khalid al-Attiyah, a Shiite, said sessions would be adjourned until Feb. 3, and a secret vote on various nominees would be held the next day. If there is no clear majority for one candidate, a second vote will be held on Feb. 5, he said in a statement.

The U.S. military has warned that insurgents are expected to step up attacks in the days before and after the Jan. 31 vote. Already, sporadic elections-related violence has been reported.

A roadside bomb struck a crew of Iraqis putting up posters for a Shiite candidate late Sunday in eastern Baghdad, wounding eight people. Latif Abu Mohammed, a 37-year-old construction worker who was injured in the attack, said his crew had been waiting until nightfall to put up campaign posters to avoid being spotted by rival parties.

"We are construction workers hired by a candidate to put his portraits on walls. We have nothing to do with politics," said Abu Mohammed.

In other violence, a bomb attached to a car exploded Monday in a mainly Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad, killing a police officer who was on his way to work at a passport office and wounding seven other people, police and hospital officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

The independent election commission, meanwhile, announced Monday the failure of a bid by a prominent Shiite lawmaker to gather enough support to call a referendum on self-rule for Basra, Iraq's second largest city.

Faraj al-Haidari, the commission's chief, told The Associated Press that Wail Abdul-Latif failed to get the required number of signatures in support of a self-rule referendum during a petition drive that began last month.

Politicians in Basra say the Supreme Council, which supports establishing a self-rule southern region, worked against Abdul-Latif's bid. Supreme Council politicians denied that but acknowledged their party did not think the time was right for self-rule in Basra.

To see the story online click here

Basra bid for autonomy falls short of required vote - Gulf News

Basra's bid to become an autonomous region, fell short of the 10 per cent of votes required according to the Independent Electoral Commission.

This failure will most likely lead to further division and quarrelling between political parties vested in the region. Among those opposed to Basra's autonomy bid were Shiite parties affiliated with Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, Abdul Aziz Al Hakim, and Moqtada Al Sadr. The Baathists also opposed the bid.

"Conflicting parties worked together for a common goal, which was to abort the Basra autonomy bid. This happened through voter intimidation, but we will reassert our bid for autonomy next year," Basim Al Musawi, member of the Basra Governorate Council told Gulf News. Only 5 per cent of the votes counted favoured autonomy.

"It is ironic that the Baath party and Al Maliki's Dawa Party as well as the Islamic Supreme Council, worked together to obstruct the vote counting," Zahra Al Saadoun, a political researcher in Basra told Gulf News.

The failure of Basra's bid, scores a major political victory for the Shiite Alliance under Abdul Aziz Al Hakim, who has long rejected the project due to his vision for an expanded federal project to include nine Shiite provinces in the southern and central Iraq.

"The Basra failure is a blow to those who are in favour of the division of Iraq. Iraqis want Iraq to remain one country, and this can be seen through the cooperation of Sunnis and Shiites to prevent its division." Khamis Al Alwan, a resident of Basra explained.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Poll suggest big turnout for Iraq vote - International Herald Tribune

A government-sponsored poll released Monday found that nearly three of four Iraqis said they intend to vote in the upcoming provincial elections, and a plurality said they plan to cast ballots for secular candidates, a choice that could lead to a significant political shift in a nation now dominated by religious-based parties.

In the public opinion poll of 4,570 Iraqis conducted by the government-funded National Media Center, 41 percent of respondents said they preferred secular candidates, while 31 percent said they would support candidates supported by religious parties.

The poll was conducted earlier this month among voters in the 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces where elections will be held, the National Media Center said. The respondents were randomly selected from a range of faiths and ethnic groups, the center said, but it did not provide a margin of error or other details on how the poll was done.

Nonetheless, the poll seems to corroborate other anecdotal evidence that the Iraqi electorate has grown tired of the influence exerted by religious political organizations since the last provincial and parliamentary elections four years ago. The results of unscientific voter surveys by The New York Times of 100 people in the southern province of Basra and 65 people in Mosul conducted earlier this month showed similar results.

Many voters have said they blame a great deal of the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country during much of the past three years on religious-based political parties.

A government-sponsored poll released Monday found that nearly three of four Iraqis said they intend to vote in the upcoming provincial elections, and a plurality said they plan to cast ballots for secular candidates, a choice that could lead to a significant political shift in a nation now dominated by religious-based parties.

In the public opinion poll of 4,570 Iraqis conducted by the government-funded National Media Center, 41 percent of respondents said they preferred secular candidates, while 31 percent said they would support candidates supported by religious parties.

The poll was conducted earlier this month among voters in the 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces where elections will be held, the National Media Center said. The respondents were randomly selected from a range of faiths and ethnic groups, the center said, but it did not provide a margin of error or other details on how the poll was done.

Nonetheless, the poll seems to corroborate other anecdotal evidence that the Iraqi electorate has grown tired of the influence exerted by religious political organizations since the last provincial and parliamentary elections four years ago. The results of unscientific voter surveys by The New York Times of 100 people in the southern province of Basra and 65 people in Mosul conducted earlier this month showed similar results.

Many voters have said they blame a great deal of the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country during much of the past three years on religious-based political parties.

See the full article online here

Friday, January 16, 2009

Iraqi police, military coordinate aid - Middle East Times

Iraqi army units worked alongside their police counterparts to deliver medical supplies from a military base in Basra to Basra Hospital, British forces said.

The Royal Air Force Police and members of U.S. forces supervised a shipment of more than two tons of medical supplies from a military base in Basra, the British Ministry of Defense reported.

"This is a great example of the Iraqi security forces, both army and police, working together to provide operational effect," said RAF Police Commander David Wilkinson.

U.S. military forces had planned the initial operations in 2008 but handed the operation over to Iraqi forces in November as British forces restructured their military presence in Iraq.

British forces in support of Operation Telic reached an agreement with the Iraqi government to maintain a military presence in Iraq following the Dec. 31 expiration of a U.N. mandate for multinational forces in Iraq.

RAF police along with the 21st Military Police Company of the United States coordinated the training of Iraqi police units in Basra, where British forces are stationed.

To see the article on the Middle East Times click here

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

UK sailor honoured for work with Iraqi Navy

A British Royal Navy sailor has been honoured by the United States Army for his work in setting up an Iraqi Navy fast aluminium boat squadron.
Launching an Iraqi fast aluminium boat

Leading Seaman (Seaman Specialist) Stephen Murphy from Plymouth-based HMS Cornwall spent 14 months as part of the Coalition Military Assistance Training Team in Iraq.

He has been singled out for his crucial work setting up an Iraqi Navy fast aluminium boat squadron and for equipping, training and mentoring Iraqi personnel to be able to run their own boat patrols. Overall he has enabled the Iraqis to safeguard their own territorial waters and combat terrorism and crime.

As a result the US Army have awarded him their Army Achievement Medal for his role in the operation. He was presented with the medal onboard HMS Cornwall by Captain Tom McBarnet Royal Navy (Captain Surface Ships at Devonport Flotilla).

HMS Cornwall's Commanding Officer, Commander Johnny Ley, said:

"This award emphasises the vital work Royal Naval personnel are doing throughout Iraq as part of the coalition, in addition to the Royal Navy's standing patrols in the Gulf.

"Leading Seaman Murphy's conduct is an inspiration and epitomises the qualities that make ships such as HMS Cornwall formidable fighting units and the Royal Navy one of the most effective and professional maritime forces in the world."

The citation for the award highlights Leading Seaman Murphy's outstanding leadership and mentoring abilities as being invaluable to the training mission and so greatly assisted Iraq's transition to a stable, self-sufficient nation.

Brits repair bridge over not so troubled waters

Sappers from 35 Engineer Regiment based In Paderborn Germany ensured that Basrawis’ transport infrastructure remained fully functional in a 2 night operation to repair a major bridge crossing the Shat Al Arab river in Basra, Iraq over the weekend.

The bridge that spans Cigar Island in the north-west of the city and links Basra to the Qaryat Ar Ramlah region was in need of urgent repairs after some of the steel plates that make up its surface had become damaged.

The operation required close liaison with the Iraqi Security Forces to ensure a security cordon was placed around the bridge during the repair phase. The local population had been warned of the overnight bridge closures by radio message and the repairs were carried out at night so as to cause minimum disruption to the local population.

The troop commander in charge of the operation Lieutenant Angela Laycock, 26, from 29 Armoured Engineer Squadron, Royal Engineers said:

“The troops were very grateful to carry out this task as they knew the bridge repair was so vital to the locals. They worked really hard during the night and there was good interaction with the Iraqi Police and Army who helped to man the outer cordon. They were really positive about the bridge being repaired too.”

“As soon as the bridge was reopened at 0600 in the morning a moped, donkey and a truck full of sand crossed the bridge without having to dodge the broken panels that were there the night before.”

Monday, January 12, 2009

Iraqi Army Day Parade

Yesterday the British Army trained Iraqi 14th Division celebrated the 88th Iraqi Army Day with a full scale parade and march past in Basra on Sunday 11 January 2009.

Iraqi Army Day is a national day of celebration that takes place annually on 6th January to commemorate the formation of the Iraqi Army. In its 88th year, the Iraqi Army’s 14th Division paraded over 1000 troops, 3 helicopters and 3 reconnaissance aircraft and over 300 vehicles in a march, fly and drive past the General Officer Commanding Basrah District, General Mohammed, at the Shat Al Arab Hotel in central Basra. Also present at the parade was Brigadier Tom Beckett, Commander 20th Armoured Brigade (The Iron Fist) who had been invited by General Mohammed to represent the British Forces in Iraq.

The involvement of so many vehicles and personnel in such a large parade shows just how far the Iraqi Army has come in recent months in terms of their ability to conduct and execute military planning. The parade also demonstrated the improved security in the region, in that such a large event could take place in central Basra. In another positive sign of flourishing normality over 20 members of the local media were also present to record and broadcast the event, ensuring that the local population were able to see their army in all its splendor.

Colonel Abbas Al Tamimi, media operations officer for the Iraq Army 14th Division said:

“The people of Basra are celebrating the stability and security in Basra that the Iraqi Army has achieved and maintained. The people of Basra are now reaping the fruits of this improved stability and security”

Brigadier Tom Beckett said:

“This has been a fantastic parade and when you think that they can put on something like this with so many people and vehicles and it runs like clockwork, it shows how the Iraqi Army has come on leaps and bounds over the last few years.”

He continued:

“As we have seen, after Operation ‘Charge of the Knights’ the Iraqi Army is an effective and capable force able to bring security to the people of Basra. For us, [Coalition Forces] the next big milestone is the elections. It’s making sure that the Iraqi Army and Security Forces are happy with their security lay down and that we can help them in any way that they need to be helped”

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Iraqi security forces heal old divisions on medical supply run

Another positive step towards autonomy and joint Iraqi Army and Police operations was achieved in Basra when members of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) delivered 2 tonnes of medical supplies from the Contingency Operating Base (COB) to Basra Hospital.

The operation was initially planned by members of the Multi National Division Headquarters (MND(SE)) staff working on the COB. The detailed planning and execution of the operation was then handed over to the ISF working in the newly formed Provincial Joint Operations Centre (PJOC) that opened in central Basra in November of last year. The PJOC brings together all the various district security and emergency forces allowing them to combine and co-ordinate their command and control from one central location.

In a highly successful operation the Iraqi Army and Police personnel worked in unison to deliver the medical supplies that had been donated by the US Forces operating from the COB. Two truck loads of supplies left the COB and headed for the Basra Hospital under the mentoring of the US Forces 21st Military Police Company and members of the RAF Police who have been helping to train the Iraqi Police Service.

Squadron Leader David Wilkinson, RAF Police, working in the MND(SE) Headquarters said:

“This is a great example of the Iraqi Security Forces, both army and police, working together to provide operational effect.”

New Bridge to be built in Basra - Alsumaria Iraqi Satellite TV Network

In Basra International airport a contract was signed in order to build a new bridge instead Al Tanouma Bridge which is actually situated in the middle of Basra city. The cost of the project is of $11600 and multinational forces will finance the project.

Multinational forces spokesman Lt Cdr Bill Young said that the Forces contracted with two companies: MacDnonald and Ibn Majed in order to start the construction works in the bridge that is situated on Shat Al Arab. The spokesman pointed out that signing the contract took place in the attendance of a number of Province Council members and of representatives of the two companies.

Young Added that the Bridges blueprints were established by Iraqi architects and it will be soon built beside the two floating bridges and it would also include two lines. The bridge allows the passage of boats all along the river because it was designed to be opened in the middle.

Click here for the report on Alsumaria Iraqi Satellite TV Network

Friday, January 9, 2009

Iraq Has Changed for the Better - Al Hayat

John Hutton Al-Hayat
Earlier this month I attended the Regional Security Summit in Bahrain. The Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq , Dr Barham Saleh, was among the speakers. He spoke well. He talked about how an Iraq, growing in confidence, is looking to engage with its neighbours as a positive force in the region. To use his words an Iraq "at peace with itself and its neighbours".

I could not help thinking of this when reading Sir Cyril Townsend's recent piece for Dar Al Hayat in which it is suggested that the British mission in Iraq has failed. That analysis is simply wrong. Saddam Hussein's regime, which we and our coalition allies overthrew, not only suppressed and murdered the people of Iraq .

It presented a threat to the whole region - a region crucial to British interests. Its definition of engaging with its neighbours was to intimidate, bully, even invade them. It was not interested in being part of the international community. It sought confrontation not cooperation.

The decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein's regime was one I supported at the time and will continue to defend. The region is a safer place for the removal of Saddam. We should be proud of the part our forces have played in achieving this, and in helping to get the Iraqis to a stage where they are nearly ready to take on full responsibility for their own security in southern Iraq without our help.

As the Prime Minister announced yesterday, our Mission in Iraq will change next year to one focused on specialist training in a few areas. That will allow our forces to reduce from 4100 to around 400 by the end of July. As we reach this point it is not surprising that commentators are analyzing what our forces have achieved over the past six years. They have achieved much, as I saw for myself when I was able to walk around Three Mile Market in Basra with Iraqi forces and our soldiers who are training them a few weeks ago.

The reason we are redeploying our forces is simple: because our mission is on the verge of completion. By the time our troops withdraw, our job will, without question, be done. And if it was not, we wouldn't be going. Iraq today is a nation that has been changed for the better because the coalition wide plans for transition have worked. Plans which over a period of time placed the Iraqis in the lead in ensuring their own security.

The scale of the challenge in Basra has been daunting. We never claimed that we alone could solve the problems of a city neglected for decades by Saddam. But by helping the Iraqis find Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems, our Forces have achieved their aims. The Iraqis are now close to the point where they will no longer need our help apart from in a few niche areas like helping the Iraqi Navy.

As Dr Saleh put it, "Today Iraqi soldiers and police are initiating and leading operations across Iraq and are gaining the trust and support of the population." That was always where we were trying to get to. We have never abandoned the Iraqis or barricaded ourselves in our bases. We have been there alongside them offering support and advice.

During Operation Charge of the Knights, when Iraqi forces confronted and comprehensively defeated the militias in Basra last April, we were with them providing air support, artillery, medical treatment, logistics and a lot more. Basra is not perfect. Thirty per cent of Basrawis still do not have access to piped water. But compare that to the situation we discovered on coming into Basra in 2003.

Then, 77 per cent of the population faced that situation. There have also been huge improvements in power supply, hospitals and medical care, nutrition, school attendance and, of course, democracy. It is because we - working in partnership with the Iraqis we have mentored and our US and other allies- have been so successful in turning around the security situation over the past six years, that attention is now focussed on problems like water and electricity supply, litter in the streets and traffic congestion.

Security now ranks fifteenth is people's list of concerns. A place where people are thinking about such everyday matters is a place where people are not living in fear of being blown up - or, for that matter, being persecuted by their own government. It is because of the long-term peace secured by those who have fought and died in Iraq that we are now seeing the sort of continuing development that will improve the standard of living of all Iraqis: building infrastructure, supporting businesses, developing key industries such as agriculture and energy, and growing the economy.

As the military mission ends, the challenge now is to ensure that the business and reconstruction mission is every bit as successful. There are great opportunities for British investment and I hope we take them. For the first time in living memory, Iraqi people can now start to benefit collectively from their country's wealth and resources, rather than see the revenue creamed off and squandered by a corrupt regime. If that is not an achievement, then I do not know what is.

See the article on Al Hayat click here