Iraq: British 'defeated' in Basra, US official says

Issue 

"The British have basically been defeated in the south [of Iraq]", the August 8 Washington Post reported being told by a US intelligence official in Baghdad. In the first six months of this year, 37 British troops were killed in Iraq, the highest number for any six-month period of the war and 14 more than died in the whole of 2006.

The Post reported that the airport outside Basra, Iraq's second largest city (with 2.6 million residents), "where a regional US embassy office and Britain's remaining 5500 troops are barricaded behind building-high sandbags, has been attacked with mortars or rockets nearly 600 times over the past four months".

Ken Pollack, a foreign affairs expert at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, predicted that US troops would soon have to go into Basra, which is also Iraq's chief port. Basra province accounts for most of the country's oil production.

"I am assuming the British will no longer be there", Pollack told journalists after returning from an eight-day visit to Iraq. "They are not there now. We have a British battle group holed up in Basra airport. I do not see what good that does except for people flying in and out."

The August 12 London Sunday Times reported that the British airport base "has become a shooting gallery for Iraqi insurgents. British forces are housed in tents, many near the airport tower which is visible from well beyond the heavily defended airport perimeter. Insurgents using 107mm or 120mm rockets, fired from old drainpipes or other makeshift launch pads, simply aim at the tower and hope to cause mayhem in the camp.

"In the first three years of the base, only 45 attacks using IDFs — indirect fire mortars or rockets — hit the airport. But in the past two months more than 300 have struck …

"It's even more dangerous beyond the perimeter. Convoys have to resupply the only other British outpost left in southern Iraq — the Basra Palace, which lies a few miles south in the city …

"Some 700 British troops are still holed up there and need food, fuel, ammunition and other equipment. As the convoys run the gauntlet of the city streets, they come under assault on all sides. 'Last time we did it the convoy encountered 25 IEDs [improvised explosive devices]', said Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Sanders of 4 Rifles. 'The Jam [the soldiers' name for the Mahdi Army insurgents] see the trucks form up, they know the routes in, they know the routes out. It's a fucking nightmare' …

"It is all part of an escalating campaign by insurgents who want to drive the British out and be seen to do it. In the words of one officer, the British 'have become the problem rather than the solution', with more than 90% of the violence in and around Basra aimed at them."

The August 10 London Telegraph reported that Tim Collins, commander of the Royal Irish Regiment during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, said more British troops should be sent to Basra. "There's a need for a bit of tough decision-making here because there is a lot of fumbling as Basra burns", he said. "We need a reinforcement to stabilise the situation until such time as the Iraqi police and army can confidently take over. Anything else will just result in a Saigon moment with the last helicopter leaving the roof of Basra Palace."

The dire situation facing the British occupation forces in Basra follows the failure of Operation Sinbad, which was launched by the British military last September.

This offensive was described by the October 8 British Independent as an attempt to "cordon off areas of Basra one by one, take over police stations infiltrated by 'rogue elements' and allow contractors to carry out quick projects aimed at boosting public confidence, such as repairing street lights and clearing rubbish".

Louise Heywood, head of the British armed forces program at the Royal United Services Institute in London and a Territorial Army officer who served in southern Iraq until early 2006, told the Independent that the aim of Operation Sinbad was "to replicate what the Americans have been seeking to do in Baghdad, which is to go from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, clearing out the militias".

The August 8 Washington Post also noted this comparison: "The current US security operation to 'clear, hold and build' in Baghdad and its surroundings is almost a replica of Operation Sinbad, which British and Iraqi forces conducted in Basra from September 2006 to March of this year with a mission of 'clear, hold and civil reconstruction'. Although Operation Sinbad initially succeeded in lowering crime and political assassinations, attacks rose in the spring and British forces withdrew into their compounds."

The August 12 Sunday Times reported that since then the "main struggle for control of Basra is between supporters of Moqtada al Sadr, whose Mahdi Army is behind the bulk of the attacks on the British; the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which is Iraq's largest Shiite political party and has its own militia, the Badr Corps; and Fadhila, a breakaway Sadrist political party formed around supporters of an independent southern state controlling the local oilfields".

SCIRI now calls itself the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC). It is the major party in Washington's puppet Iraqi central government, headed by PM Nuri al Maliki of the Islamic Dawa (Dawn) party.

The Sadrist movement, with 30 MPs, pulled out of the government in April after Maliki rejected their demand that he push for a definite timetable for the withdrawal of US and other foreign occupation troops.

The Basra-based Islamic Fadhila (Virtue) Party, which was formed in April 2003 and has 15 MPs, pulled out of the ruling coalition of Shiite religious parties in March, denouncing the Maliki government as "sectarian".

Fadhila announced it would form an alliance with the Sunni-based Islamic Accordance Front as a "first step" towards the development of a "project of national unity that would include all Iraqis". The IAF, which has 44 MPs, pulled out of Maliki's government on August 1.

On August 6, four ministers from the mixed Sunni-Shiite Iraqi National List of Iyad Allawi announced they would boycott all cabinet meetings until Maliki ends his "marginalisation" of Sunni MPs.

This series of withdrawals has left half of the 37 cabinet posts vacant and discredited Maliki's claim that he heads a "national unity" government.

The London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) observed on August 7 that the "concrete walls that surround the Fadhila party's compound in Sharish, north of Basra city centre, resemble the barricades around the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad". "Last spring, fierce clashes erupted between Fadhila and the Mahdi Army, a paramilitary group loyal to radical Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr. Several people were killed on both sides and offices and buildings belonging to the two parties were destroyed …

"When the two militias began fighting over the post of electricity chief, the police force divided into factions which turned their weapons on one another. Police cars were used to transport militia members …

"Except for electricity, which is delivered from neighbouring Iran and is now available about 20 hours a day, Basra's infrastructure has seen little improvement. The water supply is as bad as before the war, forcing the people to buy purified water. Refuse collection is worse than before, and rubbish is piling up in the streets.

"Reconstruction work and health care, education and sewage treatment have seen very little progress. Local officials continually maintain that they are preoccupied with more pressing matters such as security, and that reconstruction is sacrificed as a result."

Basra Madhi Army commander Abu Ali al Baaj told the IWPR that Fadhila had presided over a corrupt administration. Baaj "accuses senior local officials of awarding tenders and contracts to relatives, and failing to ask questions when reconstruction projects are implemented poorly or late".

According to the IWPR, "A fragile balance of power has evolved where Fadhila is in charge of the government's oil protection force and, with it, the oil production infrastructure and export terminals. The Sadrists dominate in the local police force, the facilities protection service and the Basra port authority. Together with the small Iraqi Hizbollah party, they also have a strong presence in the customs police force, while the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council dominates the intelligence apparatus and the well-equipped commando units that formally come under the interior ministry in Baghdad.

"Compared with Baghdad, Basra may look calm, but even a slight shift in the precarious balance may lead to a surge in violence."

"We are prepared for the upcoming battle, and concrete barriers won't save them [Fadhila]", Yusif al Musawi, secretary-general of the Islamist Tharallah (Vengeance of God) party, told the IWPR, adding that if new local elections "aren't held, we will use force to kick Fadhila out".