Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Beginning Of The End For UK Troops In Basra - Sky News


Geoff Meade, Defence correspondent
Britain has formally handed over Basra to US troops, marking the start of the withdrawal from the UK's most contentious war for half a century.

UK Maj Gen Andy Salmon has now relinquished command to American Maj Gen Michael Oates, who heads up the new Multi National Division South.
The ceremonial lowering of the divisional flag signalled the end to British control of their Basra base, six years after the invasion.

Gen Salmon and his headquarters staff will start packing to leave Iraq in the next 48 hours.
Over the coming four months, almost all of Britain’s remaining contingent will follow.
Where UK forces took the lead in battling insurgents, the few left will concentrate on training and mentoring Iraqi units.

Streets that once saw some of the fiercest rebellion, with British soldiers and armoured vehicles under regular attack, are left in the control of the Iraqi government.
Security is provided by local troops and police.

Near normal life has returned, as once-regular blood letting has now reduced to sporadic outbursts. But the achievement has come at the cost of 179 British lives and untold thousands of Iraqi casualties.

The campaign has also seen UK forces at their best and worst.

It was here that Johnson Beharry became the only serving holder of the Victoria Cross.
But it was also the theatre where prisoner abuse lead to the first British war crime conviction and the still-unsolved killing of Baha Mousa, the hotel receptionist who died in military custody.
The Ministry of Defence claims that the last 18 months have been a period of particular progress, with Basra safer and more stable than before and poised to exploit its enormous wealth as an oil producing centre.

However, the Americans are not so convinced of its benign future to leave the safety of their main supply line from Kuwait entirely in the hands of the locals.

The US 10th Mountain Division will patrol regularly against any renewal of the violence that will be the main memory of those whose duty is coming to an end.

U.K. Military Transfers Command of Basra to U.S. - Wall Street Journal


The British military transferred over coalition command of the oil-rich southern province of Basra to the U.S. on Tuesday. It was the latest step toward the withdrawal of the remaining 4,100 British troops from Iraq by midsummer.

The British troops will be withdrawn in phases, with combat operations due to end at the end of May and all but about 400 troops withdrawn by the end of July. Those staying behind will be involved in training Iraqis, according to the British Ministry of Defense.

"As the Iraq people continue to stand on their own, we will support them and we will stand together shoulder-to-shoulder united against our common enemies and committed to peace and prosperity," the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, said at a ceremony to mark the Basra handover.

Britain, which had been a staunch U.S. ally since the March 2003 invasion, handed over security responsibilities in Basra to the Iraqis late last year but continued to maintain its presence on a base at the airport outside the city.

The British military has reported 179 deaths since the war started.
Iraq's deputy chief of staff for armed forces Lt. Gen. Naseer al-Ebadi thanked the British forces for training and equipping the Iraqis and said his forces were ready to take over. "Iraqi security forces are capable of maintaining order and security," he said.

Royal Marines' flag lowered for last time in Basra - Times


Deborah Haynes in Basra

The remaining British troops in Iraq began to withdraw today after handing over control of the main base in Basra to a US commander in a ceremony that was sealed with the lowering of the Royal Marines flag.

Major-General Andy Salmon, the last British two-star general to command the province where British forces have been based for six years, is due to fly to Qatar and then home to a champagne reception in Britain.

“It is a momentous day in so many respects,” General Salmon told The Times after a ceremony at Basra airport, next to the military base, at which the flag of the US 10th Mountain Division was raised to replace the Marines’ colours.

“I think we have made a contribution, we have made a difference, we can see amazing progress has taken place in Basra. There is still an awful lot to do of course. At least we can go having contributed and done our bit.”

Asked what he planned to do when he arrived home, the General said: “Have a couple of beers, I think, and see my missus.”

A staff of about 40 will depart with him, paving the way for the majority of Britain’s remaining 4,100-strong contingent to exit Iraq by the summer.

General Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, attended the ceremony along with his deputy and a number of senior Iraqi and British officials, including Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, who flew in for the occasion.

Standing on a podium decked in the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes, General Odierno paid tribute to the “special relationship” enjoyed between his country and Britain.

“Those of us who have served here are linked not just by the heritage and bloodlines that we share but by the blood we have shed together in the defence of the innocent. That is a bond that no man can break," he told an audience of about 300 mainly British and American military personnel and diplomats.

The ceremony also recognised the contribution of the 179 British soldiers, airmen and sailors who have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion and the 100,000 coalition Servicemen who have carried out tours of duty in the country.

“This occasion is about the countless number of men and women from the far-flung corners of the United States and from Great Britain who have striven which such courage here in Iraq,” Sir Jock said.

Southern Iraq is more stable than a year ago when Basra, in particular, was overrun by extremist militias. An Iraq-led operation to regain control last March has enabled a new sense of security to take hold and reconstruction projects to get underway.

Under an agreement between Baghdad and London, British combat operations in Iraq are due to end on May 31, by which time many troops will have departed. Most of the rest will leave by the end of July.

However, up to 500 are to remain in the country beyond that deadline to continue with the training of the tiny Iraqi navy and to work at an Iraqi staff college. In addition, a number of officers will continue to be based at the coalition headquarters in Baghdad.

Iraqi and British officials are discussing a new long-term agreement that will guide the two countries’ relationship beyond July 31.

UK troops begin Iraqi withdrawal - BBC

UK troops begin Iraqi withdrawal

The ceremony began with bagpipes and ended with an embrace

British forces have begun their official withdrawal from Iraq after the UK's commander in the south of the country handed over to a US general.

Major General Andy Salmon has transferred authority for what will become Multi-National Division South to US Major General Michael Oates.

The generals' pennants were raised and lowered in a handover ceremony.

Most of Britain's 4,000 troops will leave by 31 May, the official end-of-combat date.

About 400 will stay after that, either in HQ roles or to train the Iraqi Navy.

'Dedication and commitment'

A Royal Marine band from Plymouth played as the Marines' flag was lowered in the ceremony at Basra airbase and replaced with the standard of the US Army's 10th Mountain Division.

Britain's Maj Gen Andy Salmon then shook hands with his American successor and embraced him.

In a speech at the handover ceremony, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of Defence Staff, paid tribute to the troops who had served in Iraq.

"This occasion is about the countless numbers of young men and women from the far flung corners of the US and and the various reaches of the British Isles, who have together striven here with such dedication, with such commitment, and such courage, over so long a period," he said.

"We remember particularly at such a time those who paid the ultimate price in this endeavour, those who suffered injury and disablement, in order that we might get to this point today."

Since the 2003 invasion, 179 British personnel have lost their lives in Iraq.

The head of coalition forces in Iraq, US General Ray Odierno, expressed his gratitude to British forces and public in a speech.

"I am grateful not only for the outstanding accomplishments of the brave troopers of the UK, but for the courage and selfless dedication of all the UK forces who served in Iraq, and for the unwavering commitment of the British people in the cause of liberty around the world."

Before he took formal control, Maj-Gen Oates said the US "gladly" accepted the responsibility.

"The citizens, elected government and security forces of Basra can expect our full co-operation and support. We look forward to the opportunities of service to the Iraqi people, and forging our new relationships here in Basra," he said.

'Stability and freedom'

Maj Gen Salmon says much has been achieved over the past six years.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the work of British forces had changed the lives of ordinary Iraqis.

"For those who are old enough to realise, and compare it with the past gloom of Saddam's era, they look back to 30 years ago and say 'We're seeing stability that we haven't had before; we're seeing levels of freedom that we haven't had before'," he said.

"We trust the Iraqi security forces. We can see economic investment start to take hold. We just had safe and secure free fair and an open set elections which have now been ratified and we now look to the future with considerable amounts of optimism."

The US role in southern Iraq will be slightly different, focusing more on training the Iraqi police, and keeping open the supply route between the south and Baghdad.

The BBC's defence correspondent Caroline Wyatt says US soldiers are now a visible presence in Basra, with British troops handing over many of the buildings and duties at the camp as they pack up after six years in Iraq.

But Lt Colonel AJ Johnson, the American taking over the job of liaising with the Iraqi Army at Basra Operations Centre, says there will not be much difference in the US approach in Basra - which means ensuring the Iraqi Army and police remain the most visible presence on the streets.

Lt Col Johnson told the BBC: "The bottom line, the aim of the transition itself is to make sure it's seamless and that there's generally no perception that the US army is here and they are going to do things different than the British did when they were here."

The Americans are also reducing their numbers, with two brigades due to leave the province of Al-Anbar, once the heartland of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

However, the bulk of US troops are not due to leave until the end of 2011.

Maj Gen Salmon said he did not regret that the British forces were leaving Basra before a credible police force was working in the city.

"I don't think I have got any regrets over that; it's just the way it is. With the forces we have had and the resources we have had, we have concentrated on training the army," he said.

"We've trained the 10th division and trained the 14th division. The 10th division has performed really well further north and the 14th division has performed brilliantly over the last year in Basra, so we've got something to be very proud of."

U.S. Takes Over as Britain Begins Basra Pullout - New York Times


BASRA, Iraq — After six years as America’s closest western ally in Iraq, Britain handed over command in the Basra area to the United States on Tuesday as a prelude to withdrawing its last 4,100 troops from the country.

At its height, the British commitment to the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 totaled more than 40,000 personnel, including ground troops and pilots. But with its army stretched by a growing deployment in Afghanistan, Britain has gradually scaled back its presence and handed over security duties to Iraqi forces.

At a ceremony at a civilian air terminal here, Maj. Gen. Andy Salmon of Britain’s Royal Marines handed control of forces in the Basra area to American Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, who will command the British forces as they draw down.

Most are scheduled to leave the country by the end of July, but several hundred will be left an advisory capacity, British military officials said.

“We stayed the course and we endured,” General Salmon said at the ceremony, during which the band of the Royal Marines played the British, American, and Iraqi national anthems.
Some 7,000 American soldiers will move in to replace the British divisions by late summer, General Oates said. Prior to Tuesday’s handover, some 2,000 American troops in Basra were under British command.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of American forces in Iraq, praised the British deployment in Iraq and said that the transition ceremony “comes with mixed emotions.”

“None of this has been easy. We have faced tremendous adversity,” he said, telling British representatives: “You have given the people of Iraq an opportunity to build a bright and prosperous future.” He said the handover represented a “transition, not an end.”

Ever since a massive operation last year spearheaded by the Iraqi army, with substantial British and American support, security has improved significantly in Basra, though residents still complain of a severe lack of jobs and basic services. Coalition forces have become an uncommon sight in Basra’s streets, which are dotted by Iraqi police and army checkpoints.

Iraqis security forces are technically in control of Basra, and the remaining American troops will primarily serve as advisors, General Oates said.

Monday, March 30, 2009

UK in Iraq, the beginning of the end - BBC


By Caroline Wyatt
Defence correspondent, BBC News, Basra

The withdrawal of British forces from Iraq will begin on Tuesday as the top British general in southern Iraq hands over his command to an American general in Basra.

Major General Andy Salmon will transfer authority for what will become Multi-National Division South to US Major General Michael Oates. He will now command British and American forces in the south of the country.

A few British troops will leave Basra on Tuesday - although the majority of the 4,000 British forces still in southern Iraq are not due to go just yet.

Most will leave by 31 May, the official date set for the end of combat operations, with only about 400 remaining after that - either in coalition HQ roles or helping to train and mentor the Iraq navy in the port of Umm Qasr.

Under the current agreement with the Iraqi government, the bulk of British forces have to leave Iraq by the end of July.

Annie's Pretzels

In a separate deal, American troops are to stay on until the end of 2011, although this June they will have to finish withdrawing their soldiers from Iraqi cities to bases outside the main centres.

The transfer of authority does mark the beginning of the end of Britain's military presence in Iraq, six years after the US-led coalition invaded the country and deposed Saddam Hussein.

Already, the main British base at the airport just outside Basra - known as the Contingency Operating Base (COB) - is taking on an increasingly American flavour.

Fast food outlets are springing up (Annie's Pretzel Bar, motto: 'Spoiling Dinners since 1988') and convoys of American armoured vehicles can be seen churning up the tracks, scattering clouds of fine desert sand.

US soldiers are also a much more visible presence on the base, with British troops handing over many of the buildings and their duties at the camp, as they start packing up.

It is a major logistical operation, with 4,000 servicemen and women and six years worth of military equipment to move.

The US military role in southern Iraq will be slightly different. American forces are to focus more closely on training and mentoring the Iraqi police, who are still less trusted than their army counterparts.

They will also help train Iraqi forces to maintain border security, as well as keeping open the main supply route between the south and Baghdad.

Lives lost

During Operation Telic 13, the codename for British operations in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003, British troops have focused mainly on mentoring the Iraqi army, in particular the 14th Division.

"I think we can go with our hands on our hearts, holding our heads high, very proud of what people have achieved here over the last six years," says outgoing Major General Andy Salmon.

He cites the recent provincial elections, which passed off mainly peacefully in the south, and the improved security situation, including interest from new investors in Basra.

We are standing at the memorial wall in Basra, with its rows of brass plaques recording the 179 UK service personnel and the MoD civilian who lost their lives over the course of the British campaign.

"We have to remember the lessons - we've always got to learn lessons in any campaign - then get back, have some well-deserved leave and get on with the next job."

Page last updated at 23:00 GMT, Monday, 30 March 2009 00:00 UK
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UK in Iraq, the beginning of the end

By Caroline Wyatt
Defence correspondent, BBC News, Basra


The withdrawal of British forces from Iraq will begin on Tuesday as the top British general in southern Iraq hands over his command to an American general in Basra.

Major General Andy Salmon will transfer authority for what will become Multi-National Division South to US Major General Michael Oates. He will now command British and American forces in the south of the country.


The bulk of British forces have to leave Iraq by the end of July
A few British troops will leave Basra on Tuesday - although the majority of the 4,000 British forces still in southern Iraq are not due to go just yet.

Most will leave by 31 May, the official date set for the end of combat operations, with only about 400 remaining after that - either in coalition HQ roles or helping to train and mentor the Iraq navy in the port of Umm Qasr.

Under the current agreement with the Iraqi government, the bulk of British forces have to leave Iraq by the end of July.

Annie's Pretzels

In a separate deal, American troops are to stay on until the end of 2011, although this June they will have to finish withdrawing their soldiers from Iraqi cities to bases outside the main centres.

The transfer of authority does mark the beginning of the end of Britain's military presence in Iraq, six years after the US-led coalition invaded the country and deposed Saddam Hussein.

Already, the main British base at the airport just outside Basra - known as the Contingency Operating Base (COB) - is taking on an increasingly American flavour.

Fast food outlets are springing up (Annie's Pretzel Bar, motto: 'Spoiling Dinners since 1988') and convoys of American armoured vehicles can be seen churning up the tracks, scattering clouds of fine desert sand.

I think we can go with our hands on our hearts, holding our heads high, very proud of what people have achieved here over the last six years

Major General Andy Salmon
US soldiers are also a much more visible presence on the base, with British troops handing over many of the buildings and their duties at the camp, as they start packing up.

It is a major logistical operation, with 4,000 servicemen and women and six years worth of military equipment to move.

The US military role in southern Iraq will be slightly different. American forces are to focus more closely on training and mentoring the Iraqi police, who are still less trusted than their army counterparts.

They will also help train Iraqi forces to maintain border security, as well as keeping open the main supply route between the south and Baghdad.

Lives lost

During Operation Telic 13, the codename for British operations in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003, British troops have focused mainly on mentoring the Iraqi army, in particular the 14th Division.

"I think we can go with our hands on our hearts, holding our heads high, very proud of what people have achieved here over the last six years," says outgoing Major General Andy Salmon.

He cites the recent provincial elections, which passed off mainly peacefully in the south, and the improved security situation, including interest from new investors in Basra.

We are standing at the memorial wall in Basra, with its rows of brass plaques recording the 179 UK service personnel and the MoD civilian who lost their lives over the course of the British campaign.

"We have to remember the lessons - we've always got to learn lessons in any campaign - then get back, have some well-deserved leave and get on with the next job."

Why should I [vote]? Politicians are all the same - the last governor was bad, and the next one will be even worse

Basra market trader
A few miles away, at the Iraqi army's main base at Basra Operations Centre in the old Shatt-al-Arab hotel, another transition will be taking place between the US and Britain.

British Colonel Richard Stanford, who advises the head of Iraqi forces General Mohamed, will also hand on to an American, Lieutenant Colonel AJ Johnson.

"It's truly a pleasure for me to come in and dovetail on the accomplishments of British forces here," Col Johnson tells the BBC.

He has recently arrived from Sadr City in Baghdad, one of the heartlands of support for the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and is finding Basra a striking contrast as he is shown around a shiny new shopping centre in the city.

It stocks everything from women's racy underwear to make-up, jewellery and perfume - all discouraged, sometimes violently, by the Shia militia before the Iraqi army launched its successful operation Charge of the Knights last March.

US, and later UK, forces embedded training and mentoring teams with the Iraqi forces within Basra city to help during the operation.


"The British here truly have an understanding of an insurgency-rich environment. The steps they have taken and set in place have set American and coalition forces up for success as we partner with the Iraqis here," says Col Stanford.

On the streets of Basra, British soldiers from the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment are performing their last mentoring patrol with their Iraqi charges.

Accompanying them in their American-built Humvees, the patrol was conducted to a distinctly Iraqi soundtrack blaring tinnily from one of the Iraqi soldier's mobile phones.

'More sociable'

Feelings in Basra about the transition are mixed. We drive with the patrol to the edge of what was once the most dangerous area of Basra, the Hayaniyah. Col Stanford, an Arabic speaker, chats to market traders.

One man says he didn't bother voting in the most recent provincial elections: "Why should I?" he asks. "Politicians are all the same. The last governor was bad, and the next one will be even worse."

He is still convinced that Britain and America only invaded Iraq to take control of its oil supply, and says foreign armies have no place here.

Others, though, say they are thankful to British forces for helping remove Saddam Hussein - though most are now happy to rely on the Iraqi army to keep the peace in Basra.

Another man tells us that he prefers British forces to American troops.

"They're friendlier, more sociable. I've heard the Americans can be more aggressive."

So, as British forces prepare to leave Iraq, what does Col Stanford think they have learned from their six years here?

"We have re-learned some of our lessons from history - that we need the help of local forces. We trained the Iraqi army to secure Basra province and that's what they have done."

If there have been a few cross-cultural difficulties between the British and the Iraqis, the incoming Americans will have to learn a whole new language as they gradually take over from British soldiers in the coming months.

Iraqis honour Brit - The Sun


A BRIT war hero named Salmon was given a golden award by Iraqi leaders yesterday — in the shape of a real salmon.

Maj Gen Andy Salmon, head of coalition forces in Basra, received the jewel-encrusted trophy as our troops prepare to withdraw from the region.

The ceremony was organised by the Iraqis to thank the British for their involvement in the South East region of the country over the past six years.

Iraqi dignitaries, including senior Army officers and religious leaders, praised Maj Gen Salmon, who will this week hand control of coalition forces in Basra to the US Army.

The event, opened by the Royal Marines Band, was held at Basra Operations Command.
Maj Gen Salmon said Iraq could be the “envy of the world”.

He added: “We look to the future with, I’ve got to say, a huge amount of optimism.”

US general: British did a great job - Mirror


British troops have done a "phenomenal job" in Iraq, a US Army general.

Brigadier General Jeff Smith is part of the senior command team that will take over from British control of coalition forces in Basra in southern Iraq this week.

He said yesterday: "The Brits can be proud of what they have achieved here."

Brig Gen Smith spoke of a "true optimism" among the people of Iraq and said the US military in Basra would continue the successful work British troops have done with Iraqi security forces.
He said: "The UK forces have done a phenomenal job.

We are going to continue that very important partnership."

The beginning of the end of Britain’s military mission in Iraq - The Times


Deborah Haynes in Baghdad

Striking up Glorious Victory, a Royal Marines band marched into the grounds of an Iraqi base in Basra yesterday to open a farewell feast that marks the beginning of the end of Britain’s military mission in Iraq.

The band from Plymouth, flown in for the occasion, performed seven numbers, including a spot by four drummers. Speeches and a spread of chicken, rice, fish and salad followed, washed down with fizzy drinks and bowls of ice cream.

Yesterday’s party is the latest step in a carefully choreographed handover that ultimately will end all foreign forces’ presence in Iraq. The jovial atmosphere was tinged with sadness as Iraqis bid farewell to their British counterparts who have been a part of Basra life since 2003.

Glorious Victory is not the usual phrase used to describe the outcome of the past six years, with much work still to be done, but British commanders are upbeat about the future and feel that they leave Basra a better place. “As we sit here now, having completed the UK’s military tasks, we look to the future with – I’ve got to say – a huge amount of optimism, which I think reflects the way people now view life in Basra,” Major-General Andy Salmon, the leading British officer in the south, told a crowd of British, Iraqi and US officials.

Major-General Mohammed Huweidi, the commander of Iraqi forces in the province, said: “I would like to thank the British nation for helping us rid ourselves of dictatorship and live in freedom and democracy.”

Britain’s mission in Iraq experienced undulating highs and lows, from troops patrolling the streets in soft berets and no body armour in the early days to soldiers diving to the ground to avoid mortars and rockets fired by extremist militias who overran Basra until as recently as last year. In total, 179 British personnel have died since the invasion and many more have been injured. Billions of pounds have been spent on equipment, manpower and reconstruction work, which continues.

In the most significant turning point, Iraqi forces, backed by US and British troops, finally regained control of the province 12 months ago in an operation launched by Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister. The offensive brought security, enabled reconstruction work to gather pace and allowed Britain to finalise an exit plan, with most of its remaining 4,100 troops due to pull out by the summer to be replaced by US forces.

As part of the transition, control of the British headquarters at a sprawling base next to Basra airport will be transferred to a US commander in the coming days. General Salmon and his division staff will then depart, heralding the start of a new era for the whole of the south.

From next month the US military will shut down a hub in central Iraq and merge it with the Basra operation, the nine provinces south of Baghdad falling under the new US mission out of Basra.

Although violence is down dramatically, a roadside bomb exploded yesterday in the path of a group of Iraqis in a reminder of the continuing potential for danger in the oil-rich south.

Two people were killed and six critically injured, according to Major-General Adel al-Ameri, the police chief. Ten arrests had been made, he said. “We don’t want to allow the enemy to make problems and kill the people.”

Colonel Richard Stanford, who is handing over his role as adviser to General Mohammed to an American officer, said that the US task would be “subtly different” from the that of the outgoing British military. “They have been invited down here to keep a very light hand on the tiller of security, but really help with reconstruction and economic development,” he said.

Some 500 British Forces personnel will also remain in Iraq after the summer, largely to help with training the Iraqi Navy and to work at an Iraqi staff college.

With one of the world’s largest oil reserves and Iraq’s only port, Basra has huge potential, provided security remains stable and a newly elected provincial council makes good on promises to improve essential services, such as electricity and water, and to create jobs.

Britain to start Iraq pullout on Tuesday - AFP


British forces will officially start to pull out of Iraq on Tuesday, signalling the end of six years of military operations that began with the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.

The British-led coalition base in Basra will lower its flag and transfer to US control as American soldiers arrive to take up a new role that includes the training of Iraq's fledgling police force.

"It will be a significant day because it signals the completion of Britain's military tasks here," Major General Andy Salmon, the outgoing British commander of the base, told AFP ahead of the pull out.

"We have had some difficult times but we look ahead to the future with a huge amount of optimism for Iraq."

Britain, under then prime minister Tony Blair, was America's key ally when president George W. Bush ordered his forces to invade Iraq in March 2003.

British troop numbers in the campaign were the second largest, peaking at 46,000 in March and April six years ago during the US-led invasion, and 179 of its servicemen and women have died in the country.

A deal signed by Baghdad and London last year agreed the remaining 4,100 British soldiers would complete their mission -- primarily training the Iraqi army -- by June, before a complete withdrawal from the country in late July.

The British contribution to the war and subsequent reconstruction effort was recognised by both American and Iraqi officers ahead of Tuesday's handover.

"British forces have been our strongest ally throughout this campaign," US Army Major General Michael Oates, who will become the senior coalition officer in Basra when the British-led unit ceases to exist on Tuesday, told AFP.

"They have done an outstanding job and our task is to continue that work," Oates said.
The Iraqi army's senior officer in the province used a farewell feast at Basra's Shaat al Arab Hotel at the weekend to thank Britain for its support in the wake of Saddam's ouster.

"I would like to thank the British nation for the assistance they have provided to help rid us of dictatorship and live in freedom and democracy," said Major General Hawedi Mohammed.
"The Iraqi Army and the Iraqi public will remember the sacrifice by British forces for some time to come. Our thoughts and prayers are also with the families of the British soldiers who lost their lives in this country."

Basra, Iraq's third-largest city and a strategic oil hub, had been under British control since the invasion, but the province and its airport returned to Iraqi sovereignty three months ago.
As well as training the Iraqi army, Britain has also been key in the rebirth of the war-torn country's new navy.

A Royal Navy training team is based at the southern port of Umm Qasr and its role is expected to continue although a new agreement has yet to be reached between the two governments.
Relations between London and Baghdad should in theory revert to the same footing as those between other countries when British troops complete their withdrawal in the summer.

The British pull out comes as the US military also steps up preparations to leave Iraq.

Under a US-Iraqi security agreement signed in November last year, US troops are to withdraw from major towns and cities by June 30 and from the whole country by the end of 2011.

President Barack Obama has ordered an end to US combat operations in Iraq by August 31 next year, but says 50,000 troops will remain under a new mission to expire at the year-end deadline.

UK begins Iraq farewell by saying: so long, and thanks for the fish - Guardian


The beginning of the end came with a banquet, a marching band playing under grey skies, and a jewel-encrusted golden fish.

After six years in which Britain has been regarded as friend and foe, liberator and occupier, the army's formal withdrawal from Iraq began yesterday when it handed over its last remaining command post in Basra, the base at the Shat al-Arab hotel.

Tomorrow, the army will surrender its main base to the US army, clearing the way for a full withdrawal by early summer and bringing to an end one of the army's most testing operations since the end of the second world war.

Yesterday's ceremony included a Royal Marine band flown in from Cornwall, playing for an audience of sheikhs and security chiefs, and an exchange of gifts.

The magnificent golden salmon was given to Major General Andy Salmon, who transferred power to an Iraqi division, which the British army has mentored for the last two years. He paid tribute to the recent provincial elections in Iraq which were hailed as a democratic success, despite claims of vote-rigging and a new inquiry into the conduct of some candidates by the Iraqi integrity commission.

He also claimed British troops could be proud of producing a "successful conclusion" to the Iraq war and said the decision to topple Saddam Hussein was right. "We stayed the course and we endured and we partnered with everybody and seized our opportunities and adapted along the way," he said.

"I can put my hand on my heart and say we finished this right. I can also say that we've been through some difficult times and emerged from them. Everyone here has. But we can all hold our heads up high and say it was worth it."

The army has insisted over the last 18 months that the Iraqi army is a far different outfit to the military it took on during the invasion of 2003. It also claims Basra is safer and stable - two achievements that pave the way for an exit.

However, the American military will step into the void left by the British departure, a move that casts a shadow over claims by Downing Street and Whitehall that the job has been done.
The Iraqi army has been conducting patrols on its own for 10 months and will still host British forces at the Shat al-Arab hotel until July. Only a skeleton British crew will remain at the once grand riverside hotel which now stands in partial ruins.

As the British and Iraqi dignitaries gathered, a bomb exploded near a key oil installation in southern Iraq, killing three police officers and three civilians. Violence has decreased sharply throughout southern Iraq, but occasionally flares up to coincide with high-profile events.

A total of 179 British troops have died in the conflict. The new commanding officer for Basra, Major General Mohammed, paid tribute to them, claiming their sacrifices had made a marked difference in the south. "The British leave us as friends," he said. "They should be proud of what they have achieved. They have won our respect and are very much appreciated for their efforts by the people of Iraq."

The senior US military command will formally take control of the airport on Tuesday. Whitehall has said it will gradually withdraw all troops between now and then but has not provided timelines.

The handovers formally move the British army from a lead partner in southern Iraq to a secondary force, though combat units will remain battle-ready as the remaining 100 British troops trickle away between now and the end of July. They are the first key markers of the end of a campaign that has long fought for legitimacy in the British public's psyche amid ongoing doubts about its validity and outcome.

Be proud of success in Iraq, troops told - Metro


British forces in Iraq said the outgoing troops could be proud of achieving a successful conclusion, despite 'ups and downs' along the way.

Maj Gen Andy Salmon insisted the armed forces were leaving Basra a safer and more optimistic place than they found it in 2003.

'I can put my hand on my heart and say we've finished this right,' he said.

'It was a very difficult start. But this is a successful conclusion to a long campaign.'

Combat operations in Iraq will end on May 31 and nearly all of Britain's remaining 4,100 troops will leave by July 31.

The key turning point for Basra was a significant Iraqi army-led operation targeting militias last year.

Maj Gen Salmon admitted there was a lot to be done to make the city safe but predicted 'a very rosy future'.

He added: 'The threat that exists is very different from the threat a year ago.'

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Iraqi Army host farewell feast for departing British Forces


General Mohammed, the commander of Iraqi Security Forces in Basra, Iraq’s second city, hosted a farewell feast for the British Forces who will begin their drawdown from Iraq in early April. The feast took place today at the Basra Operations Centre next to the Shatt al Arab waterway in the north of the city.

Major General Andy Salmon, a Royal Marine Commando and commander of the British in South East Iraq, joined General Mohammed and over 250 guests including many key figures from the Iraqi security forces and provincial government.

“I would like to thank the British nation through General Andy for helping rid us of a dictator. The Iraqi Army and people will remember the sacrifices of the British for many years to come,” said General Hawedi Mohammed, Commander of Basra, through an interpreter.

The feast is the first of a number of events that mark the beginning of the departure of British and American combat troops from Iraq. Over the summer the British 20th Armoured Brigade will redeploy back to Germany and two US combat brigades of over 12,000 soldiers will head home signalling the start of a significant transition of coalition forces in Iraq.

“This is a moment to celebrate. That is why we are here. We need to celebrate the achievements of the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi Police and all the members of the Iraqi Security Forces,” said Major General Andy Salmon.

“Over the last year we have seen the impact of that these very brave men and women have had on Basra and the security in the province.”

“We need to praise the faith of the people of Basra because they put their trust in the Iraqi Security Forces. They turned their back on the militia and violence and they decided they wanted to do something about their future. So they took part in some very successful elections which were free and fair.

“As we sit here now having completed the military tasks we look to the future with a huge amount of optimism which I think reflects the way the people now view life in Basra.”

Britain's role in training and mentoring the 14th Iraqi Army Division is done and the Iraqis are organising and conducting their own operations with minimal British support. Basra is secure and resilient and this has been achieved through the efforts of the Iraqi Security Forces, supported by British and American training teams.

Over the past six years the coalition has worked hard to deliver security to the economic heart of Iraq which has already started to see the benefit of investment and economic growth.

“The people just want, what anyone wants around the world. A future for their children, they want jobs, the delivery of essential services, investment and they want a prosperous future and to live their lives in a normal way, in a way that they haven’t been able to do for the last thirty years,” said Major General Andy Salmon.

Major General Andy Salmon together with his staff will be the first troops to leave Basra. The rest of the British combat troops will leave Iraq by the 31st of July.
Maj Gen Michael Oates said the American military would "pick up where the British forces have left off" in Basra.
"British forces have been our best allies throughout this campaign, and our relationship in several tours that I have had here, has been nothing short of outstanding partnership," he said.
"So it's a bitter-sweet day for me to have them leave, but I'm enormously proud of them, and I think the people of Great Britain should be very proud of their Army. They've done an outstanding job in Basra."

Whilst the combat mission in Iraq will come to an end, Britain is currently discussing with the Iraqi Government what residual capabilities will remain.

Prime Minister Maliki and his senior generals have stated that they would be keen for some training and other specialist tasks to continue into the future.

UK thanked for its role in Iraq - PA


The head of Iraqi security forces in Basra has thanked Britain for its help in ridding his country of dictatorship and bringing freedom.
General Hawedi Mohamed paid tribute to the 179 UK personnel who have died since the 2003 invasion at a feast in honour of the outgoing British commander in the southern Iraqi province.
"The Iraqi Army and the Iraqi public will remember the sacrifice by British forces for some time to come," he said.

Major General Andy Salmon, who will hand control of coalition forces in Basra to the US Army later this week, said Iraq could be the "envy of the world" if its leaders looked after their people.

The feast, at Basra Operations Command at the former Shatt Al Arab Hotel in Basra, was attended by local Iraqi dignitaries including senior Army and police officers, sheikhs and religious leaders. Among them was US Army Major General Michael Oates, who is poised to take over command of coalition troops in Basra on Tuesday.

Speaking through an interpreter, General Mohamed said: "I would also like to thank the British nation through the general for the assistance they have provided to help rid us of dictatorship and live in freedom and democracy. Our thoughts and prayers are also with the families of the British soldiers who lost their lives in this country."

Maj Gen Salmon said: "As we sit here now having completed the UK's military tasks, we look to the future with, I've got to say, a huge amount of optimism, which I think reflects the way that people now view life in Basra."

He added: "I think the challenge is simply that if you look after the people, you deliver their needs, they will support you and they will work together with you to make Basra and Iraq a very stable place which will be the envy of the world."

Maj Gen Michael Oates said the American military would "pick up where the British forces have left off" in Basra.

"British forces have been our best allies throughout this campaign, and our relationship in several tours that I have had here, has been nothing short of outstanding partnership," he said. "So it's a bitter-sweet day for me to have them leave, but I'm enormously proud of them, and I think the people of Great Britain should be very proud of their Army. They've done an outstanding job in Basra."

UK’s Basra mission ’successful’ - BBC

British troops can be proud of a "successful conclusion" to their mission in southern Iraq, their commander has said.

Major General Andy Salmon, the head of British forces in Basra, has said the troops have left the area much safer.

In an interview with the Press Association (PA), Maj Gen Salmon said: "I can put my hand on my heart and say we've finished this right."

"I know that it was a very difficult start - we all know that.

"We know that actually we went through some difficult times."

He said: "So did the US Army, we all went through difficult times.

"We can be proud of our achievements"Major General Andy Salmon

"We stayed the course and we endured, and we partnered with everybody, and seized our opportunities and adapted along the way."

Britain's combat operations in Iraq are due to finish on 31 May, and virtually all of the 4,100 troops in the country will have left Iraq by the end of July.

Maj Gen Salmon will leave Iraq this week, handing with the Basra region handed over to the control of US forces

"We can be proud of our achievements," he said.

"We should be humble but not frightened of spelling out the successful picture that we are looking at now in Basra, albeit there are still a lot of challenges and considerable things that have to be done to make it a stable place."

Tourism potential 'phenomenal' for wartorn Basra - PA


By Sam Marsden, PA

Basra's potential as a tourist destination is "quite phenomenal", offering everything from historic sites to bird watching, according to Britain's Consul General in southern Iraq.

The city was once known as the "Venice of the East", but today it is still emerging from the effects of decades of neglect under Saddam Hussein, a series of wars and a bloody insurgency.
But British Consul General Nigel Haywood says it now sees itself as a future rival to Dubai - albeit with much more to offer.

He said: "The tourism potential for Basra is actually quite phenomenal. It's just not there yet."
Mr Haywood cited the example of a bird watcher he met at a party while he was back home in the village of Corfe Castle in Dorset.

The ornithologist enthused about the Basra warbler and the fact that the province is on major bird migration routes, leading the Consul General to wonder whether British RSPB members might one day flock to southern Iraq.

Basra already has one five-star hotel nearing completion and Iranian investors are proposing to build a second.

Mr Haywood said: "It sees its future as a major cosmopolitan trading city on one of the key transport routes from East to West...

"(Dubai) is the direction of travel that Basra would like to take - except that it would see itself as having much more than Dubai."

But he added: "I think it's going to be a long time before people come out here for beach holidays.

"The city itself has the potential to look absolutely stunning, but there's a long way to go."
Basra was on the itinerary of a small group of adventurous Western tourists - among them five Britons - who visited Iraq earlier this month in the first trip of its kind since the 2003 invasion.
Mr Haywood has seen the security situation in the city improve dramatically since he arrived in April 2008.

But he is not keen to encourage other British tourists to visit Iraq in the immediate future.
He said: "Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice remains what it says on our website, which is: Don't come here unless your travel is essential.

"It's still arguably a risky activity, we still have people held hostage here. That always has to be borne in mind.

"While investors are likely to be able to put in place good security arrangements for their visitors, individual tourists are less likely to."

Mr Haywood is not expecting a rush of UK holiday makers to arrive in Iraq, and anticipates that the British consulate in Basra will become focused primarily on promoting business ties.
"Consulates abroad are there for the protection of British citizens, although increasingly if you look at the way our consulates operate, much of the work is promotion of trade and investment," he said.

"That's the kind of consulate I would expect to see here in the future."

Commander hails successful mission


British troops can be proud of having achieved a "successful conclusion" in Iraq as they prepare to withdraw, the UK's most senior commander in the country said.

Major General Andy Salmon, head of coalition forces in Basra in southern Iraq, acknowledged there had been "ups and downs" since the 2003 invasion and paid tribute to the 179 British personnel who lost their lives during the conflict.

But he insisted that UK forces were leaving Basra a much safer and more optimistic place compared with the darkest days of the insurgency.

In an interview ahead of his imminent departure from Iraq, he said: "I can put my hand on my heart and say we've finished this right.

"I know that it was a very difficult start - we all know that. We know that actually we went through some difficult times. So did the US Army, we all went through difficult times.

"We stayed the course and we endured, and we partnered with everybody, and seized our opportunities and adapted along the way."

British combat operations in Iraq will end on May 31 and nearly all of the UK's remaining 4,100 troops in the country will be withdrawn by July 31.

Maj Gen Salmon, of the Royal Marines, will leave Iraq ahead of this after standing down as general officer commanding the coalition's Multi-National Division (South-East) and handing control of Basra Province to US forces.

He listed a series of achievements by the British Armed Forces in Iraq, from deposing Saddam Hussein and training the new Iraqi Army to helping to deliver successful provincial elections in January and attracting investors to Basra.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Tina's dream holiday - to Iraq


TWO intrepid travellers were back in Brighouse last night after being among the first group of western package tourists to visit Iraq since the 2003 US invasion.

The 17-day tour, which took in Baghdad, Basra and the holy site of Samarra, where a bombing in 2006 sparked months of sectarian violence, would have been unthinkable 12 months ago.Organised by Hinterland Travel, the independent travel company run by Geoff Hann, of Brighouse, the trip attracted eight tourists, including civil servant Tina Townsend-Greaves, aged 36, of Victoria Street, Clifton.

None of the group could get travel insurance and all of them travelled against Home Office advice. Violence still plagues Baghdad and other areas in Iraq and there were explosions near the group's hotel in the city on the sixth anniversary of the US invasion.

But the most serious problems the group experienced were numerous frustrating security checkpoints, delays and last-minute changes to travel plans. Said Geoff: "There is a new administration in Iraq and they are still very inexperienced and nervous. Due to security considerations we weren't able to see all the ancient sites we had planned but it was encouraging to see ordinary Iraqis going out and about on the streets again. In some ways things were better than on my last visit in 2003 and a lot of the bombed-out tanks and remnants of the conflict have been cleared away.

"Since returning to Brighouse, Geoff has been beseiged with requests for interviews from news organisations from all over the world, including Australia, America, Italy and Germany. An interview with a CNN reporter in Iraq was broadcast during the trip.

"I can't believe the amount of interest in the trip. I was out in Iraq in November for a tourism conference and that's when I started to think an organised tour might be possible again. I'm hoping we'll be able to go again in April or May. On the whole I think Iraq is safe for tourists but they need to get more of the sites open for people to visit.

"For Tina, who has visited Afghanistan four times, Iran, Kurdistan and Georgia, the chance to go to Iraq was too tempting to pass up. "I used to like my luxury holidays but in recent years I have become interested in archeology and travel and have got used to roughing it. It was a privilege to be able to go to Iraq and see how the country is coping.

The people were very welcoming and also curious about what we were doing there - as were the American troops we met. Obviously the many checkpoints got very tedious at times but you have to use common sense.

"The group travelled round by minibus with an Iraqi driver and interpreter and stayed in local hotels. "One of the highlights was visiting the El Hadi Mosque, which had been almost destroyed by bombing, but is now being rebuilt. We also went to Uruk, one of the most important sites in the country, and went down to the south where there is a very strict dress code for women.

"Sadly we did not get the chance to see the museum in Baghdad or any of the monuments because they were suddenly shut to visitors. There is a lot of in-fighting between various factions in the administration and that might have been the reason. But the people on the streets were very surprised and pleased to see us - I think, for them, it is a small sign that things might be getting back to some sort of normality."

Friday, March 27, 2009

Iraqi Women Can Now Say No to Hijab or Head Scarf


Relative Security Improvements Mean Greater Freedom of Choice for Iraqi Women.

All over Baghdad the gradual improvements in security and the near-disappearance of militiamen and al Qaeda members from the streets have reduced the pressure on Iraqi women to cover their heads with a "hijab," or head scarf.

Militants routinely threatened to kill each and every woman who did not dress according to the precepts of sharia law that were put in force in 2007. According to Juliana Dawood, a college teacher who lives in Basra, graffiti on the city walls threatened violence against any woman who did not wear the hijab. Fliers distributed in cities like Basra reinforced the warning.

People in the Ghazaliyah neighborhood in western Baghdad witnessed many assaults on women in 2007. "I saw a group of armed men. [they] grabbed a girl and beat her before a crowd of more than 50 people along with her father for not wearing hijab, and afterward they cut her hair with knives," a man who identified himself as Eman told ABC News. "I was frightened and never left home for nearly a week."

A woman named Ibtisam, a 56-year-old housewife living in Baghdad, said that fear of the militiamen "drove my 23-year-old daughter to wear the head scarf. ... We did it for security."
The Hijab phenomenon, in the eyes of many Iraqis, can be linked to the influence of neighboring Islamic-ruled countries.

Yanar Mohammed, the head of the Iraqi Womens Group, told ABC News the phenomenon was enforced indirectly by "the militants who represent the ideologies of their countries." She added that members of al Qaeda "actually distributed the full hijab worn in Afghanistan and forced women [in Iraq] to wear it. One woman who refused ... was killed the next day."

Another Iraqi, Ashjan, a 35-year-old working woman who lives in the Al Khadraa neighborhood of western Baghdad, said that after security improved and there were "no more al Qaeda in Iraq members in the streets to threaten us, I stopped wearing the hijab. I feel free now."

Ilham, a teacher in a girls school said, "Even Christian women were frightened by the wrath of militants and wore the head scarf to avoid being targeted."
After 2003, Iraqis say, militants tried to cast a more religious character on the country's secular society in a number of other ways, such as prohibiting young men from wearing short pants or smoking cigarettes in public.

Ahmed, who owns a tobacco store that includes a hubble-bubble, the traditional Iranian water pipe, said he narrowly escaped an armed attack. "I was sitting at my shop in the al Khadraa area and all of sudden two masked armed men broke in and opened fire." The bullets left him wheelchair-bound.

For a time, hubble-bubble smoking pipes were prohibited in Baghdad coffee shops, and weddings and parties became taboo, after Iraqi state television ran a graphic story about a bride who was slaughtered in the province of Diyala because al Qaeda in Iraq deemed her wedding un-Islamic.
Now beauty, bridal and cosmetics shops flouish in areas that were previously hotbeds of violence. Young Iraqi women now wear short skirts and boots without fearing for their lives. After six years, things are slowly getting back to normal, and Iraqis revel in the new freedom of how to live their lives.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Is God Answering Prayer For Iraq?


"'I am just optimistic, and I think we are on the right path,' said Hiba Aal-Jassin, a dental student.

"There are dramatic numbers to backup this sentiment. A new ABC News poll finds 65 percent of Iraqis feel positive about their lives. So much so, that from the port city of Basra in the south, to Karbala in the heartland, there are signs of new life everywhere.

"The streets, the markets, the restaurants, they are all bustling with people. some Iraqis in Baghdad have even taken up new hobbies like car racing.

"'It is all new,' said Luay al-Ameer. 'It is nice.'"

Many Americans prayed earnestly for a democracy build in Iraq after the fiendish despot was dethroned. Is democracy now blossoming?

Per George Thomas,CBN News Senior Reporter, there is real hope. Six years have passed since the US moved into Iraq to rid the place of Saddam Hussein.

Six years. Can one imagine that the years have flown by so quickly? Yet they have and change has moved in for the better.

Where once soccer stadiums were used primarily for Muslim males to shoot bullets into women's heads to decree "honor killing," soccer stadiums are now used mainly for legitimate sport.

"Tens of thousands of fans feel safe to gather for soccer matches. Security is a big factor in all this.. 84 percent of Iraqis say the security conditions are good. The number is double what it was in 2007.

"'We feel safe and it is much better than last year,' said one Iraqi."

Instead of the sharia Islamic maddening so-called rule of justice and legality, locals praise democracy.

People are talking about planting their flower and vegetable gardens. Children are tossing balls in the streets. Markets are selling their produce.

Instead of Hussein's lusty sons picking up pretty women on the streets at night, taking them to rape rooms, then killing them before dawn, Iraqis try to forget the raunchy Hussein who played righteous while slaughtering his own.

Even Hussein's relatives feared for their daughters. Hussein would have lavish parties in his palaces. Relatives were invited. However, before daylight a young girl or two or three could be missing forever. Hussein and sons thought nothing of taking his own clan females for sex and then murder.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Iraq to say it with flowers at Baghdad festival


Iraq unveiled on Tuesday ambitious plans for an international flower exhibition, the first in the country's history, to be held in Baghdad's biggest park next month.

"We have invited French and European companies and a number of Arab and regional states to the festival," municipal council spokesman Hakim Abdel Zahra said of the event, which will have both a cultural and a commercial objective.

"We chose April because it is the month when everyone celebrates spring and when life is reborn," he said. "For us it corresponds with an improvement in the security situation, and we want the world to be a witness."

The week-long festival will start on April 15, and a main stage and exhibition stands are being built at Zawra Park in central Baghdad.

"Baghdad is doing a great job to create a ceremony that includes the work of Arab, Islamic, and European countries, as well as the Iraqi provinces," Zahra said, noting that better security would hopefully help draw foreign companies seeking Iraqi clients and local crowds.

"The security situation is good, and the municipality will cooperate with the security forces to provide necessary security measures," he said.

During the bombing of Baghdad in the 2003 US-led invasion, Baghdadis commonly visited flower-sellers and nurseries to buy flowers and small garden plants to be left as symbols of their life, were they to be killed.

Zawra Park reopened last July, more than five years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. It features a zoo, swimming pool and a promenade which is particularly popular during religious and national holidays.

Bush's 'folly' is ending in victory


'MARKETS without bombs. Hummers without guns. Ice cream after dark. Busy streets without fear." So began Terry McCarthy's report from Iraq for ABC's World News Sunday on March 15, one of a series the network aired last week as the war in Iraq reached its sixth anniversary.

A nationwide poll of Iraqis reveals that "60 percent expect things to get better next year - almost three times as many as a year and a half ago," McCarthy continued. "Iraqis are slowly discovering they have a future. We flew south to Basra, where 94 percent say their lives are going well. Oil is plentiful here. So is money."

In another report two nights later, ABC's correspondent characterized the Iraqi capital as "a city reborn: speed, light, style - this is Baghdad today. Where car bombs have given way to car racing. Where a once-looted museum has been restored and reopened. And where young women who were forced to cover their heads can again wear the clothes that they like."

One such young woman is dental student Hiba al-Jassin, who fled Baghdad's horrific violence two years ago, but found the city transformed when she returned last fall. "I'm just optimistic," she told McCarthy. "I think we are on the right path."

ABC wasn't alone in conveying the latest glad tidings from Iraq.

"Iraq combat deaths at 6-year low," USA Today reported on its front page last Wednesday. The story noted that in the first two months of 2009, 15 US soldiers were killed in action - one-fourth the number killed in the same period a year ago, and one-tenth the 2007 toll. The reduction in deaths reflects the reduction in violence, which has plummeted by 90 percent since former President Bush ordered General David Petraeus to implement a new counterinsurgency strategy - the "surge" - in early 2007. Even in northern Iraq, where al-Qaeda is still active, attacks are down by 70 percent.

In the wake of improved security have come political reconciliation and compromise. Iraq's democratic government continues to mature, with ethnic and religious loyalties beginning to yield to broader political concerns.

The Washington Post reports that the country's foremost Shiite politician, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has formed an alliance with Saleh al-Mutlak, an outspoken Sunni leader. It is a development that suggests "the emergence of a new axis of power in Iraq centered on a strong central government and nationalism" - a dramatic change from the sectarian passions that fueled so much bloody agony in 2006 and 2007. In the recent provincial elections, writes the Post's Anthony Shadid, Maliki's party won major gains, with the prime minister "forgoing the slogans of his Islamist past for a platform of law and order." Despite his erstwhile reputation as a Shiite hard-liner, Maliki now echoes Mutlak's call for burying the hatchet with supporters of Saddam Hussein's overwhelmingly Sunni Baath Party.

Those elections were yet another blow to the conviction that constitutional democracy and Arab culture are incompatible. For the 440 seats to be filled, more than 14,000 candidates and some 400 political parties contended - a level of democratic competition that leaves American elections in the dust. A Jeffersonian republic of yeoman smallholders Iraq will never be. But over the past six years it has been transformed from one of the most brutal tyrannies on earth to an example of democratic pluralism in the heart of the Arab world.

For a long time the foes of both the Iraq war and the president who launched it insisted that none of this was possible - that the war was lost, that there was no military solution to the sectarian slaughter, that the surge would only make the violence worse. Victory was not an option, the critics declared; the only option was to partition Iraq and get out. Time and again it was said that the war would forever be remembered as Bush's folly, if not indeed as the worst foreign policy mistake in US history.

Even now, with a stubbornness born of partisan hostility or political ideology, there are those who cannot bring themselves to utter the words "victory" and "Iraq" in the same sentence. But six years after the war began, it is ending in victory. As in every war, the price of that victory was higher than we would have wished. The price of defeat would have been far higher.

Army’s new breed of officers in Iraq earn their spurs in line of fire


Operation Telic in Iraq was supposed to be about liberating a repressed people and rebuilding a nation, but it turned into a war of attrition that put the Northern Ireland experience in the shade. The impact on the British Army has been profound. Every assumption made by senior military commanders based on the prevailing intelligence and political judgment at the time was turned on its head.

As a consequence, the doctrine of warfare taught at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and at the staff colleges had to be rewritten, and the Ministry of Defence was forced to beg for funds from the Treasury to provide equipment off the shelf to cope with the unexpected and unprepared-for surge of violence in southern Iraq.

Sandhurst went from being a renowned academy that prepared young officer cadets for regimental life, big-picture wars and peacekeeping operations to a production line for almost instant deployment to Iraq once the Sovereign’s Parade was over.

Second lieutenants armed with their classroom proficiency certificates were thrust into battle training on Salisbury Plain and within months found themselves on the streets of Basra and al-Amarah, leading platoons in the face of an increasingly competent and well-armed enemy.

One moment they were dining in New College at Sandhurst with pictures of great generals around them, the next they were immersed in full-scale combat and making lifesaving decisions that few of their senior officers had faced in their careers.

Operation Telic and then Operation Herrick in Afghanistan created a generation of extraordinarily experienced young officers who have had to fight for their lives and for the lives of the men under their command. These are the generals of the future, men who have never needed to know what it was like to plan for a Soviet invasion or even how to keep the peace in Northern Ireland.

Their experience, and the combat roles of the non-commissioned officers, against the Shia militia in southern Iraq and the Taleban in Helmand province will be the marker for how the Army will be run in the future.

Already, the selection for the next Chief of the Defence Staff has been dictated by the two campaigns. General Sir David Richards, who was in charge of Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in Afghanistan in 2006-07, is to be head of the Army in August.

Lieutenant-General Sir Nick Houghton, who was Deputy Commanding General of the Multinational Force in Iraq in 2005-06, is to be promoted to Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff in the summer. Both are front-runners for the top appointment when it becomes available in 2011.

How the British Army will evolve depends partly on the results of the reappraisal of doctrine that the Development Concepts and Doctrine Centre is carrying out. The emphasis will surely be on developing the sort of high-tech weaponry and surveillance assets needed to stay one step ahead of the enemy, whether in an asymmetric war or a conventional conflict.

The experience of Operation Telic has proved that the size of the Army is too small. When he was Defence Secretary, Des Browne told The Times in December 2006 that if the tempo of operations continued for any length of time, the Army would have to increase in size.

Even though Operation Telic is now drawing to a close, and the Northern Ireland mission has been reduced to a normal garrison strength, the campaign in Afghanistan is going to tie up much of the Army for many more years. John Hutton, Mr Browne’s successor, is thought to agree that the Army is too small but he will have a battle with the Treasury if he tries to seek more money for his budget, even though recruiting extra volunteers for the Army is likely to be less challenging today because the economic recession is encouraging young people to consider a military career.

For the British troops, the counter-insurgency campaign in Iraq produced some shocking moments, such as the image of two soldiers with their combat fatigues on fire, climbing out of the turret of their burning Warriors in Basra in 2005.

There have also been some extraordinary acts of courage and sacrifice, often shown by soldiers and Royal Marines in their teens and early twenties. The gallantry awards issued have revealed examples of bravery that have proved beyond argument that the new generation of infantrymen can fight with the same unselfish determination and the same unswerving commitment as their forbears.

No one can fail to remember the accounts of courage in the medal citations for Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry, awarded the Victoria Cross, and the two George Cross holders, Captain (now Major) Peter Norton, and Trooper Christopher Finney who was only 18 when he won his medal.

There were, however, some serious lapses in discipline during the earlier stages of Operation Telic, none worse than the fatal beating of Baha Musa at the British detention centre in Basra in September 2003. That incident, to be the subject of an independent public inquiry by a retired judge, exposed the Army not only to uncomfortable and embarrassing headlines but also revealed a basic failure in the training of soldiers for prisoner-handling.

The blame for the death of Mr Musa lay not just with the soldiers who took part in the beating and abuse but also higher up — those who failed to underline to all units departing for service in Iraq that it was their solemn duty to protect prisoners of war and to observe the Geneva Conventions.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

From front-line fighting to charity work in Iraq


From fighting on the frontline to raising money for charity, soldiers from 5th Battalion The Rifles have kept themselves busy during multiple tours in Iraq.

Exactly six years ago, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Chamberlain, Commanding Officer of 5 RIFLES, was leading a company of soldiers across the Kuwaiti border into southern Iraq as part of the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.

Now his servicemen and women are part of the final rotation of British troops deployed in Iraq, where their work is much less hostile. Daily tasks include securing the British base at Basra airport, training elements of the Iraqi security forces and preparing to transport all their kit home -- a big change from battling enemy forces.

In their free time, soldiers have managed to collect more than 25,000 pounds for Project 65, which backs a number of long-standing military charities that support soldiers and their families.

Among various fund-raising events at the Basra base were a fun run and a ‘Premiership’ football tournament. Twenty teams from the British and Iraqi Armed Forces staged the tournament earlier this month, with each team playing in a strip of a current Premiership squad. The final was between Wigan (Iraqi police) and Sunderland (Royal Air Force). 'Wigan' kicked its way to a 2-0 victory.

An auction was held after the match to sell the football kits, raising 4,300 pounds. The Premier League matched the sum to bring the total to 8,600 pounds for Project 65.

The 5 RIFLES are due to start returning to Britain in the coming months, hopefully in time for three teams of soldiers to take part in a 65-mile money-raising run organised by Project 65 from Dorset to Normandy, an event due to take place between June 4 to 6.

“The aim of the run is two fold: To replicate the Pegasus Bridge operation of D-Day 'man-for-man' and to raise 500,000 pounds for the care and support of wounded armed forces veterans,” according to the web site http://www.project65.net/.

If you fancy sponsoring the 5 Rifles on their latest mission you can go to: http://www.justgiving.com/5rifles.In addition to the run, wives will be jumping out of an aeroplane to represent the gliders who took part on June 6th 1944, by doing tandem freefall jumps.

[Picture by Peter Nicholls: Lieutenant Colonel Edward Chamberlain, Commanding Officer, 5th Battalion, The Rifles.]

Monday, March 23, 2009

Basra airport ready for take-off


By Peter Grant
BBC News, Basra

For the past six years, most foreigners going to Iraq have packed boots and body armour.

But now there's a new uniform - a sharp suit and a briefcase. Increasingly, groups of business people are travelling to the country to discuss investment and development.

Most make their way to the capital Baghdad, and its administrative centre, the Green Zone, but there is an alternative.

The airport at Iraq's second city, Basra, is open for flights to various destinations in the region, and eleven airlines are using it. It gets between six and ten flights a day.

Until recently, it was mostly used by British forces, and was a neglected shadow of what it had been when it opened in 1987.

It was tattered and worn - full of long shadows and dark corners, and the floor was filthy. The gift shop displayed only a few boxes of uninviting sweets and some soft toys which looked distinctly sorry for themselves.

But now there's a fully-stocked duty free, with perfumes and luxury goods, and the gift shop has a range of cigarettes, toiletries and souvenirs.

The floor of the concourse is laid with gleaming brown and brown-grey granite. The woodwork and brass shine as, once more, do all of the illuminated signs. There's only one thing missing.

"The airport needs traffic", says its director, Mr Abdulameer Kanem Abdullah. "We are ready to move any amount of traffic. We have the lighting and facilities. We are just waiting for the passengers and aircraft".

But he's convinced they'll come. He says the new Basra business centre, near the airport, will help.

Group Captain John Gladston, who's been working with him, agrees. The RAF's 903 Expeditionary Air Wing has taken a mentoring role in the development of the airport, just as British troops have been training their Iraqi counterparts.

"Basra is the lily pad for the south", says Group Captain Gladston, pointing out how useful he feels it will be as a jumping-off point.

He thinks the airport can open up vital links for industry and commerce throughout the region, and prompt a return to manufacturing in and around the nearby port of Um Qasr which is Iraq's major entry and export point for heavy goods and oil.

Blank screens
That's the hope, but what of the reality? A glance around the comfortable, brown-furnished departure lounge shows a mix of nationalities. The boarding pass for my particular flight showed no flight or seat details, but no-one seemed concerned.

The departure screens are also blank, so it pays to listen for the shouted announcements, or watch for when fellow passengers start to move.

But the flight - in this case, to Amman, in Jordan - was punctual and smooth. For someone heading into or out of the region, it represents a very useful short-cut, saving at least half a day, and avoiding the teeming chaos that is Baghdad airport.

Basra will never be London Heathrow or Chicago O'Hare - nor does it aim to be. What those behind it - both Iraqis and British - hope is that it will soon become a busy provincial airport, playing its part in the regeneration of the region.

Erik Petersen with the British Army in Basra


In the British military's final weeks in Iraq, roads are being built, buildings are being completed, pollution is being cleaned. In the final story in a series on his visit to British troops in Basra, ERIK PETERSEN finds out how completion, and victory, is defined

FOR the combat engineers of the Chilwell-based 170 Infrastructure Support Engineer Group, the end of their time in Iraq is heavy on the "engineer", lighter on the "combat".

One recent day, Lance Corporal Lee Wagner and Sapper Matt Brown were surveying land where a missile had hit a large fuel supply, causing polluting fuel to seep into the ground. Sapper Osbourne Gabriel was designing a new road.

Around the office, combat engineers like Lance Corporal Phil Church and Staff Sergeants Mark Lott and Michael Bebbington worked on or oversaw similar projects.

For Lance Cpl Martin Simpson, the only Territorial Army soldier among the group and a building service engineer in civilian life, the work came naturally.

"The projects I'm working on with these guys require the skills that I use weekly," he said of the work the 170 is doing while attached to the larger 35 Engineers Regiment.

It's the sort of work that makes combat engineers indispensable wherever they go.

"I've been at Chilwell for three years," Lance Cpl Daniel Griffiths said. "As soon as I got there, I went to Afghan. Then Kenya for three months, then back to Afghan, then to Gibraltar, then here."

And while it might not be the most glamorous-sounding side of Army life, it's a huge part of what needs doing as the British complete their mission in Basra and prepare to depart Iraq.

The job is not easy - although as Second Lieutenant Jon Hassain of the 35 Engineers said with a laugh, lots of jobs can be tough. He used to teach physics and PE at Weldon School in Carlton.
"Being in Iraq," he said, "is still easier than trying to teach some teenagers."

If you want to get under the skin of a British soldier in Iraq, suggest that as they leave, their mission remains incomplete. Lieutenant Colonel Paul Buttery, the 35 Engineers' commanding officer, offered a concise rebuke to that.

Months ago, he noted, Gordon Brown stated the British mission as threefold: help facilitate free elections in Iraq, give control of Basra Airport back to Iraqis, and help the Iraqi military reach a battle-ready state.

Lt Col Buttery then ticked through results. Iraqis now run the airport. The last Iraqi election had more than 60 percent turnout, and a quarter of voters were women. ("When you compare that to local by-elections in the UK where we have 20 percent turnout," he said, "that's pretty good.") And the 35 Engineers themselves have been helping to train Iraqi soldiers in areas such as bomb detection - they can attest to how professional they've become.

"Our engagement with the Iraqi Army is becoming reduced as they become more effective," Lt Col Buttery said.

Of course, on the main base at Basra Airport, another army is making its presence felt. As the British leave, US soldiers are coming in. Lt Col Buttery is aware of how that might look. But, he explained, they're coming in for jobs such as training Iraqi border guards - jobs that were never in the British remit to begin with.

"It's not that we haven't finished," he said. "It's that they're coming down to do something entirely different."

Back home in Britain, debate in newspapers and on television may take the form of sweeping, vague ideas of what's happening. But when you're military, you look for specific results. And Lt Col Buttery likes the results he sees. He's walked in Basra - down the Corniche, along the riverfront - and he sees progress.

"If you were to go into Basra now," he said, "you would see an air of normality."

JACKfm's Greg Burke in Basra 19 & 20 March

JACKfm Oxfordshire's Greg Burke in Basra for the 6th Anniversary

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Would you pack for Iraq?

A tourist group has just completed a 17-day tour there, which either shows the triumph of the human spirit or a serious lack of taste

Mary Warnock
No thank you. I detest travelling anyway. I mean the actual process of deciding what to take, packing, getting to the airport two hours early without what you could call a ticket, just a floppy piece of paper, taking off your shoes, having your nail scissors confiscated and then sitting about in the most squalid place imaginable until your flight is called. To put up with all that voluntarily is madness enough, even if you are not facing probable death and certain acute discomfort for 17 days. Besides, I'd be haunted by Bush and Blair.

• Mary Warnock is a philosopher and crossbench peer

Donald Macleod
Once the idea is put into your head, it becomes almost a moral obligation. If you don't go, it's because you don't have the bottle. You might then convince yourself that it would be fun to stand by a plaque in Basra - "Abraham left from here" - and even more fun to set off on a jolly hunt for weapons of mass destruction, but the idea of a war zone as a tourist venue is the ultimate in sick entrepreneurship: "Where there's war, there's brass." If we want a dose of realist tourism, why not a package holiday to one of HM's prisons?

• Donald Macleod is principal of the Free Church College, Edinburgh

Diane Abbott
It is hard to get inside the head of anyone who would pick Iraq for their holiday. I cannot imagine that they are interested in the archaeological heritage. Otherwise they would know much of it was looted during the war. I assume they would think that they were going on some sort of seaside holiday. So I would take a bucket and spade, a deckchair, a candyfloss machine and home-made dirty postcards featuring ladies in burkas in order to write "wish you were here" to friends and family. And I would also take the collected speeches of Tony Blair.

• Diane Abbott is MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

Rob Penn
Without hesitation. Muslim hospitality is unparalleled and it would be an important step for the people of Iraq. When I cycled through Bosnia in 1997, I met anger - a skinhead chased me out of a bar - and consternation. "Don't leave the road," a Serbian policeman said. "The farmers dump the land mines there." But then people began to realise I was a tourist, not a soldier, war crimes investigator, journalist or aid worker. They took me into their homes and wept. I was, I understood, a symbol of transition and hope. If there were tourists, the horror was over.

• Rob Penn is a travel writer