Still On Track In Basra

By Des Browne and David Miliband
Friday, August 31, 2007

Recent weeks have brought a lot of misplaced criticism of the United Kingdom's role in southern Iraq. It is time to set the record straight.

The question some people have asked is: Have British forces failed in Basra? The answer is no.

Following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime, the international community recognized, through a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions, the need to help the Iraqi people forge a better future for themselves. The people of all coalition countries know the sacrifices involved on the part of our brave armed forces.

The United States, Britain and other countries that made up the U.N.-mandated multinational force in Iraq undertook to help provide security while a representative national government was elected, under a new, democratic constitution. We pledged to help Iraqis develop a functioning state, with armed forces, police and other institutions capable of delivering security for the people.

We also promised that, when we had done that, we would promptly hand over full responsibility for security to the legitimate, elected Iraqi authorities.

Much has been written in recent weeks about conditions in the south, and in particular the significant challenges Basra still faces. These challenges are real, wide-ranging and deep-seated.

U.K. troops have continued to provide overall security and maintain the capability to strike against the militias. We continue to play a key role in southern Iraq, contributing to securing supply routes to Baghdad, training and mentoring Iraqi security forces, and building the capacity of the Iraqi border force. In particular, we have trained an Iraqi army division (more than 13,000 men) that is increasingly capable and has this year made an important contribution to the drive to improve security.

The U.K.-led provincial reconstruction team in Basra has helped build the capacity of the provincial council to govern effectively. We have helped repair critical infrastructure and generate employment, including the regeneration of the historically palm-based agricultural industry.

Commanders on the ground expect that Basra province will in months, not years, be judged to have met the conditions for transfer to full Iraqi security control. As with each of the seven Iraqi provinces already transferred -- four in areas of Iraq previously controlled by U.S.-led forces, three in the south in the U.K.-led area of operations -- the final decision will be taken by the Iraqi government, in consultation with the U.S. commander of the multinational force, based on the conditions on the ground.

Decades of misrule, deliberate neglect and violent oppression under Saddam Hussein have left a legacy of political, social and economic problems that will take many years of patient effort to overcome.

There is no anti-government insurgency, and very little evidence of an al-Qaeda presence in southern Iraq, whose population is over 90 percent Shiite. But there is intense political competition between longstanding rival Shiite movements, too often spilling over into violence.

To recognize that such challenges remain is not to accept that our mission in southern Iraq is failing. Our goal was to bring Iraqi forces and institutions to a level where they could take on responsibility for their communities. It could not create in four years in Iraq the democracy, governance and security that it took Great Britain and the United States centuries to establish. That is a long-term task for the whole international community.

In those southern provinces already transferred to Iraqi control, the political and security authorities have responded robustly to recent intimidation and violence. They have grown in stature and confidence in a way that was impossible while we retained control.

We believe we remain on track to complete the return of full sovereignty to the Iraqi people as planned. The United Kingdom is sticking to the mission we took on four years ago. But our commitment to Iraq will not end when our troop movements and the transfer of security control in Basra are complete. The international community will need to maintain its support of Iraq for a long time to come, even if the form of that support will evolve over time. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said we will fulfill our obligations to the Iraqi people and to the international community.

But while outsiders can support, advise and encourage, only Iraqi leaders can make the political decisions and compromises essential to the future of their country.

Courageous Iraqi leadership is critical, and it is now needed urgently to shore up the hard-won achievements of the past four years. The gains secured with enormous sacrifice by U.S., British and other coalition allies, and, most of all, by the people of Iraq, will be at risk if such leadership is not forthcoming. We urge Iraq's political leaders to take the necessary steps.

Des Browne is defense secretary and David Miliband is foreign secretary of the United Kingdom.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company