By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 17, 2007
BASRA CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE, Iraq
The British soldiers spent more than an hour drilling the Iraqi army recruits in how to use key equipment needed to defend Basra from deadly mobs: body-size shields and menacing red batons.
"This is how you protect the city!" barked Sgt. George Parker, a gruff 34-year-old from Edinburgh, Scotland, as the Iraqis surveyed the shiny hardware the British were lending them for the training session last month. "We're not there anymore, so you need to learn how to use your weapons to defend yourselves."
But there was one problem. Iraqi facilities had none of the riot gear the British assumed they did, according to the recruits' commanding officer, Lt. Kareem Hussein Tuwene.
"Don't they know we have nothing?" he said, speaking through a British military interpreter. "If they would leave the camp, they would see we have just a helmet and rifle. That's it."
Three months after the last of its troops withdrew from violence-plagued Basra city to this airport base three miles west of town, the British military is struggling to help bring security to a city it no longer enters or fully understands.
On Sunday, British commanders formally turned over security control of Basra province to the Iraqi government; Iraqi troops and armored vehicles paraded in an elaborate ceremony.
The British have shifted their mission to watching over the situation and intervening if asked for help. Their primary focus now, commanders said, is to mentor and train Iraqi security forces and attempt to foster political reconciliation and economic development.
The challenges and successes encountered here by America's largest coalition partner offer lessons and warnings to the U.S. military as it prepares to withdraw troops across the rest of Iraq. The biggest hurdle for the British is how to accomplish their new goals without a presence in Basra, a city at the oil-rich southern tip of Iraq that has been the locus of fierce fighting between rival Shiite militias.
British officials cannot meet with many of the Iraqis they are supposed to train. Commanders are forced to rely on questionable statistics from Iraqi security forces to quantify the level of violence. And most of the 4,700 British soldiers here, who serve six-month rotations in Iraq, will be happy if they never see Basra city.
"I'm hoping we don't really go out at all," said Sgt. Victor "Dicko" Dickinson, 28, of the Royal Dragoons Guard, who noted that he has a wife and 1-year-old twins in Leicester, England. "You obviously get the blood thirst at times. But I think most people will be happy just to sit here for six months."
Soldiers are still required to carry body armor and helmets everywhere on the base, but one recent afternoon the main topic of conversation was Danielle Lloyd, a visiting Playboy model who posed in skimpy outfits and handed out magazines.
The quiet mood at the base is in stark contrast to the violent atmosphere at Basra Palace, where the troops had cloistered themselves before pulling out of the city Sept. 3. At the palace, the British were subjected to regular rocket barrages -- sometimes as many as 60 rockets in one day -- that commanders say accounted for 90 percent of the violence in the city.
The British military, which plans to decrease its troop strength in Iraq to 2,500 by the spring, said attacks on coalition forces have almost stopped in the province since their withdrawal from the city. Now there are only about three attacks a week on coalition bases in Basra, military officials said.
"The level of violence is still at an unacceptable level," said Maj. Gen. Graham Binns, the commander of British forces in southern Iraq. "But it's getting better."
The British government is sensitive to American criticism of how it has handled Basra, conducting a troop drawdown even as U.S. forces have hit a peak in Iraq.
"We've got the violence to a level where the Iraqis feel they can control it themselves," said a senior British military official in Washington. "We feel pretty positive about it." The view of some U.S. intelligence officials that the south is descending into anarchic warlordism is, the official said, "ill-informed."
Obtaining accurate statistics on violence against citizens of Basra, however, is difficult. British commanders rely on data from the Iraqi police and military that they acknowledge might be undercounted or manipulated. The British military has not released those figures publicly, saying they should be obtained directly from the Iraqi government.
But interviews with three senior Iraqi security officials in Basra yielded three different sets of data on violence in the province. The provincial police chief said the number of killings, which occurred mainly in Basra city, had decreased from 142 in June to 75 last month, while the military commander in the province said the drop over that time period went from 154 to fewer than 70. Another senior military official said the decline had been less steep, going from 83 in June to 74 in November.
"If you want to know about the security situation, you can't rely on the figures from officials," Brig. Gen. Jalil Khalaf, the provincial police chief, said with a laugh. "All the officials have their own interests."
Khalaf confirmed anecdotal reports from Basra residents that Shiite militias had perpetrated horrendous violence against women, killing dozens of them for wearing pants or not covering their heads in traditional Muslim fashion.
Binns, the British commander, said he was unaware of such crimes.
Some U.S. officials believe the British military is far too positive in its description of the situation in Basra. "Based on what people tell us, the murders are on a little bit of a decline, but it seems like kidnappings are up a little bit," a senior U.S. diplomat said.
"The bad part now is that in the city of Basra there is not much to stop the bad guys from rampaging around," said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter. "This is sort of a pregnant pause where things could go either way."
For British military and diplomatic officials in Basra, the decision not to enter the city has complicated their work.
Peter Muir, the senior governance adviser for the Basra provincial reconstruction team, has been assigned to mentor local politicians and government officials. But he cannot meet them at their offices or watch the provincial council meetings in person because British policy bars diplomats from entering the city.
"This is indicative of the whole problem here: If you can't go into town, you're not getting a good government system built," said Muir, whose only contact with local officials has been with those willing to risk militia reprisal for meeting with foreigners at the airport.
The political situation in Basra is fragile. Because of a dispute between parties, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki does not recognize the current provincial governor, Mohammed Mossibh Mohammed Waili, and has appointed the current police and military chiefs as his main representatives here.
The two chiefs said they had been ordered by Maliki not to communicate with Waili, and the British forces planned to formally hand over security to the military commander, Gen. Mohan H. Fahad, instead of the governor.
Meanwhile, British forces are trying to broker a political power-sharing deal between the warring Shiite political parties and militias that control Basra. Through intermediaries, the British are encouraging followers of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, arguably the group with the most support in the city and the most powerful militia, to enter the political process after boycotting the previous provincial elections.
Outside analysts remain concerned about the future of security in the city and whether the British withdrawal will ultimately cause violence to increase.
"Basra's residents and militiamen view this not as an orderly withdrawal but rather as an ignominious defeat," the International Crisis Group wrote in a report released this summer before the British pulled back to the airport. "Today, the city is controlled by militias, seemingly more powerful and unconstrained than before."
British officials say the pullback has not been nearly as bad as naysayers predicted. "In no gloating way, it would appear that we did get it right," said Maj. Mike Shearer, a British military spokesman. "The city is not burning."
Indeed, one senior Iraqi military official in Basra said most city residents are relieved, not upset, that British troops left the city. "The day the British leave this province will be the happiest day of our lives," he said. "They are just a target for attacks and are not doing anything to bring security."
At Shaibah, a base 10 miles southwest of Basra city where the anti-riot training takes place, British instructors work with about 100 Iraqi soldiers a day.
The work can be exasperating. After British trainers demonstrated the proper way to hold shields and batons, the Iraqis were asked to practice.
A few Iraqi troops banged their batons against their shields like drummers. Others yelled at the top of their lungs. One soldier began running in a circle.
"We're like ringleaders in a circus," said Maj. Iain Addinell, 37, of 1 Scots, as he surveyed the scene. "This lot is pretty ragged. It's gonna take some time."
The new British mission is formally described as "Monitoring, Mentoring and Training," but Addinell said he often labors hard just to convince the Iraqis that they should take part in the training.
"Aim low," read a memo prepared last month by a departing unit that characterizes the "Arab personality" as one that discourages long-term efforts. "Aim to achieve just two or three small, even tiny, improvements each day at most; any more, and you will surely go mad."
Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks in Washington contributed to this report.