Friday, August 24, 2007

Britain backs out of Basra

Britain is about to remove its last 500 troops from Basra city in Southern Iraq. The Iraqis expect to make an announcement about British withdrawal in the next few days. After the troops based in Basra Palace depart, Britain will only have 5,000 troops left in the country stationed at Basra airport. Gordon Brown will then make a decision on total withdrawal following a forthcoming report by US General David Petraeus.

American forces are deeply unhappy about the British withdrawal. Retired General Jack Keane, one of the architects of the American troop surge, said the policy was helping to turn Basra into a city of "gangland warfare". Keane said the situation had deteriorated to the point where military commanders had considered using US forces to reinforce the rapidly diminishing British presence. He said the insurgents “know British numbers are going down and see the character of operations is changing.”

The British Ministry of Defence (MOD) claimed their plans are not inconsistent with those of the US. However they admitted there are security problems in Basra. A MOD spokesman claimed that the Iraqi government’s ability to face the challenges is growing and it is appropriate that they take on more responsibility. “We remain united in our strategy of handing over provinces to Iraqi control as and when conditions allow,” he said. “The situation in Baghdad is very different to that in Basra and, as such, different responses are required.”

Britain initially sent 45,000 troops to support the war in Iraq but that number is now down to just 5,500. As of 20 August 2007, Britain had suffered 168 military fatalities since the war started. The highest death toll occurred in the invasion year 2003 when 53 soldiers died. But the death toll has been rising every year since 2004. Already 41 people have died so far this year and 2007 is threatening to overtaken 2003 as the most deadly year yet for British troops.

The situation represents a significant reverse in fortune for the British in Basra. In the days after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003, British forces could walk around Basra safely wearing berets rather than helmets. The security situation was secure enough for Tony Blair to hold a press conference in the palace. Now military commanders are feeling frustrated by the time taken to train an effective Iraqi army and by the problems forming a police force, many of whom have links with Shia militia. Now US Gen Keane claims the city has descended into gangland warfare.

Basra is Iraq’s largest port and second largest city with a population of 1.7 million. Located on the Shatt-al-arab waterway, it is 55km north of the Persian Gulf and almost 550km south of Baghdad. Basra’s economy is based on refining and exporting of oil and chemicals, and the city is also the centre of an agricultural area that produces wool, grain and dates. The majority population are Shi’ites.

The city was founded in 637 after the battle of Qadisyah when 10,000 Arab Muslims reinforced with 6,000 Syrian warriors defeated an army of 80,000 Persians. Their leader Rustam was killed, and the sacred standard of Persia was captured. The Arabs also lost a third of their men but obtained spoils and the fertile Sawad of Iraq. In celebration the Arab leader Umar al-Khattab (the successor to Mohammed) had a city called Basra founded where the Euphrates and Tigris flow into the Persian Gulf.

The city was destroyed by Mongol hordes in the 14th century. In Ottoman times Iraq was divided in to three provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. In the First World War the British built a modern harbour in the city after it sent a convoy from Bombay to protect the oil refineries tanks and pipeline at Abadan. They defeated the Turks in Battle of Basra in November 1914. The city became newly independent Iraq’s second city in 1932 and remained an import port for the Allies in the Second World War.

Despite the uncertainty of the latest war, Basra remains a boomtown. The boom is driven by a massive reduction in taxes has allowed the consumer market to blossom. The petty corruption and 100 per cent import duties of Ba'athist days are gone and trade is coming in freely from United Arab Emirates and Kuwait via Umm Qasr port. High tech products are selling particularly well. In Saddam’s era it was a crime to possess a satellite dish. Now dishes and TVs are popular in a country with few television channels, no cable, and limited nightlife. Staying home to watch movies is preferable to travelling around a dark city with sporadic gunfire. Political analyst Robert Wilson, hopes for Basra's continued development. "Basra may go from a backwater of Iraq, second to Baghdad, as it has been for the last forty years, to its natural position as the largest city in the Gulf,” he said.

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