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No Exit for British in Poor Corner of Iraq

Despite Progress, Old Scores Still Unsettled and Local Problems Unresolved

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 12, 2005; Page A01

QURNAH, Iraq -- The election is over here in the backcountry, and by local accounts, it was a grand success. The Marsh Arabs dressed in festive robes to vote. The Iraqi police and guardsmen were at their proudest. No one got shot, or even shot at -- unusual here.

Far from the bombs and politics in Baghdad, this remote bit of Iraq is now fairly quiet. But one day this week, Capt. Alexander Spry and the men of his Welsh Guards company were out on patrol, just as they were before the Jan. 30 vote. Jolting along a rutted dirt road cloaked in dust, past a squalid strip of mud huts perched on a canal levee, they had guns and waves at the ready. Either might be needed.

In Amarah, British troops who often sort out tribal rivalries and oversee reconstruction projects also continue to patrol the streets. (Ghaith Abdul-ahad -- Getty Images)

British officers such as Spry say they still have much to do before foreign military forces can leave Iraq. The narrow task that brought them here -- to help topple Saddam Hussein -- has been accomplished, but the approximately 175,000 troops from 29 foreign countries find themselves wrapped in the suffocating embrace of local problems and ancient grievances left to them to solve.

They sort out tribal rivalries, arrest car thieves, spot crooked contractors, hire men to clean sewers, and restore order to gasoline lines. At the same time, they are trying to train the Iraqis who will replace them and to reconstruct where there was little construction to begin with -- all while keeping the peace.

"We've made good progress, and there's more to be made," said Lt. Col. Ben Bathurst, who leads about 1,000 soldiers of the 1st Battalion, Welsh Guards, in Maysan province.

Although he insisted that "we're not going to be here forever," Bathurst acknowledged that the British army's departure was nowhere in sight. When the Welsh Guards leave in a few months, another British unit will take over, and the British are moving into a nearby area as Dutch troops withdraw.

Whenever local officials complain about the troops, "I've found the best way to combat that is to say, 'Okay, we'll pull out tomorrow. Then what will you do?' " The question silences critics, Bathurst said.

The situation in Maysan, the poorest of Iraq's 18 provinces, illustrates how difficult it will be for the United States and its allies to extricate themselves from Iraq no matter how successful January's election turns out to have been or how much progress is made against the insurgency.

Tucked away in southeastern Iraq, Maysan would seem a likely place for an army to come and go quickly. It is poor and rural. Vast stretches have no schools, electricity or running water.

Here in the ancestral home of the Marsh Arabs, who for perhaps 5,000 years have relied on the vast wetlands here for fish, fowl and rice, Spry and his convoy of bristling Land Rovers are aliens as they patrol a 12-mile strip of huts along a canal. The small, square homes are made of mud and straw. A door is often a piece of sheet metal propped against the opening. Smiling, strong women and squealing children emerge to greet the patrol.

There has not been much violence here since a flare-up in August that officers say was the "most intense fighting the British Army has been in since the Falklands War" in the early 1980s. All the local politicians say the British should stay.

"The coalition forces are like a doctor. When the patient has recovered, the doctor can leave," said Hashim Shawki, the local head of a major Shiite Muslim party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

The biggest question is who would replace British forces as the authority here. Two British companies live with the Iraqi National Guard, and the Welsh Guards work daily to train guardsmen and police. The British speak optimistically and say the Iraqi security forces are coming along.

But there is no timetable for a handover of security duties. The 6,000 police officers and 1,800 guardsmen are wary rivals, their ranks stocked by members of competing militias. The new provincial council is expected to side with the National Guard against the police. The governor of the province was arrested for allegedly ordering the slaying of a local police chief. He was released, but suspicions and hard feelings remain.

Local residents do not trust either security branch. During the August fighting, the National Guardsmen fled en masse.

The British acknowledge that law enforcement is constrained by tribal or familial ties. "You have to be careful who you ask to help you in a raid," said Capt. Mark Lewis, the unit's intelligence officer.

The province is clearly in need of a strong authority. The British say kidnapping for ransom, carjacking and drug smuggling are the staples of local employment. Auto theft is so regular that victims know where to go to buy back their car when it's taken.

Cargo and fuel truck hijackings became so bad that truck drivers began refusing to go down Route 6, the main Basra-to-Baghdad highway, until the British stepped up patrols. Drugs and weapons pour over the porous border with Iran, officers here say.

In the elections, the province -- which is 95 percent Shiite -- voted for the Shiite parties on the national ballot. But the real focus was on provincial elections. A slate sympathetic to Moqtada Sadr, a firebrand Shiite cleric in the holy city of Najaf, is likely to control the new provincial parliament.

Though local fighters loyal to Sadr are believed to have been the main actors in August's shootouts, the Sadr group quietly supported the election and a handful of candidates, playing politics shrewdly. They "are doing everything right at the moment," Lewis said.

When it comes to encouraging harmony here, Bathurst says, the best bait is reconstruction projects. He said he had spent $5.5 million in the area in the past four months, building schools, paying for generators and hiring contractors. He has put 8,000 jobless men to work at $4.50 a day for such tasks as cleaning sewer pipes clogged by the relentless tide of trash in Amarah, the provincial capital, a dusty city of concrete-block buildings, date palms and 300,000 residents.

"They know if we go, the money goes," said Capt. Robert Gallimore, Bathurst's deputy. "So they want us here -- not desperately, but as a necessary evil."

Bathurst acknowledged that the new local government should be responsible for such projects, and local officials grumble that they haven't been given responsibility for the money.

"After two years, we can see the results of reconstruction are not huge," complained the governor, Riad Mahood Hattab, neat in a green suit and sitting behind an expansive desk covered with fine dust at city hall. "All the money spent is very little compared to what we need."

But British officials say the locals are better at graft, kickbacks and bribes than at accountability. Hattab, when asked, said he had no clue how much the local budget was. Bathurst still wants to know what happened to $1.9 million that was given to the provincial council. The commander said that when a contract is awarded, the successful bidder is visited with demands for a share. Even simple workers are shaken down for a percentage of their wages, he said.

Residents look to the British for answers. "See this?" said a store owner, Abdul Khader, 27, pointing to a trickle of sewage running through the main market in Amarah. "The Iraqi contractors took the money to fix this and did nothing. Why don't foreign companies come in here and do the work?"

"Corruption will destroy all the efforts of reconstruction," said Khalid Qubiian, who ran for the provincial council on a clean-government platform. "That's our main problem." Qubiian worries that if the British leave, the contracts will stop or collapse in corruption and infighting will resume -- with guns.

"It is wrong to assume this place will remain peaceful," agreed Maj. Charles Antelme, a company commander.

Added to this is the daunting task of trying undo one of Hussein's more ambitious acts of revenge -- the draining of the Marsh Arabs' home. Frustrated at his lack of control over the lawless marshes and by attacks from those who hid there, Hussein ordered the shunting of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the arteries that fed vibrant wetlands filled with fish, birds and tall reeds.

A series of dams and canals built in the 1990s drained 90 percent of the wetlands and forced the Marsh Arabs to abandon their homes and begin new lives elsewhere. When Hussein fell, the locals broke the earthen levees and opened the floodgates, proclaiming a return of the glory of the marshlands.

But the rivers, tapped upstream by Turkey and Syria, flow with only enough power to restore a portion of the marshes. The fish are too small to eat, say the residents, and the water too contaminated to drink.

"All the babies are sick, and the environment all around is bad. There are no fish here. We have no jobs. We need help," said Rahan Nahie, 23, standing by his earthen home along a canal.

Many other young men have left to try to find work in the cities, Nahie said. He remains, preferring to live where the sky is large and the sun is reluctant to submit to the horizon. When it does, it takes the colors and leaves a world of silver and shadow, of wind drawing dark patterns on the water.

Captain Spry's patrol rumbles away. It will be back tomorrow.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company