Handover in Basra as killings go on

After four years, eight months and 11 days, after the deaths of unknown thousands of Iraqis, after 174 British fallen, and billions expended on reconstruction and the cost of a military mission, on Sunday the British mission in Iraq takes a large step towards being wound up.

In a ceremony that will begin with a few verses from the Qu’ran and end with an exchange of flags, handshakes and a few cans of fizzy drink, the British army will formally hand over control of security in Basra Province to the soldiers of the Iraqi Army’s 14th Division.

It continues a process that began in September when British soldiers pulled out of their last much-rocketed positions in Basra Palace, close to the Shatt al-Arab waterway, and will continue in the spring when 4 700 British servicemen will be reduced to about 2 500.

The retreats and drawdowns of the past few months have been hailed by senior British officers as a symbol of their success in establishing a more secure Basra for Iraqi security forces to take over—a line being bought by almost no Iraqis in the province. Instead the city and province that the British occupied when paratroopers and marines marched into the city centre of Basra on 6 April 2003, have traced a slow, bloody and fractious decline.

The struggles between the different political factions within the city for control of hospital wards and university campuses, for the police and for local government, led to kidnapping, intimidation and assassination, and turned at the end into Shia-on-Shia factional warfare in which ordinary Iraqis were caught in the middle.

On Saturday British officers stuck to their line. Major Mike Shearer said attacks had dropped dramatically since September as a result of the move.
Attacks on British troops, he largely meant. No one denies that the city and the province that the British are handing over is plagued by violence between militias and criminal gangs. Or that women are murdered with impunity for not wearing the hijab: 42 in the past three months by one estimate. Or that most of the grand ideals of the costly British mission in Basra have failed. The biggest victors in Basra’s political scene have been the gangster politics of al-Sadr Jaish al-Mehdi and the Badr Organisation that took over police and politics. The latest police chief, Jalil Khalaf, has survived seven attempts on his life. While that suggests strongly that he is not part of the militia problem, it does not mean he has yet mastered the problem.

The British-trained soldiers of the 14th Division repeat the same lines that are familiar across Iraq around these ceremonies. “It is very good because in this way we can put our hands on Basra city,” Private Allah Kazem of the 14th Division said on Saturday.

‘We know how to deal with the people in Basra because all of us, we are Iraqi. We can stop them when we want; we understand each other.’

The experience in Iraq is that words and actions rarely match up.

Shearer admitted that big problems still remained in the province. “The solution to south-east Iraq will not be found at the end of a coalition gun,” he said. “It will be found by Iraqis finding their own solutions to their own problems. We never pretended that we were going to hand over a province that had a white picket fence around it like a scene from The Stepford Wives. All we said we were doing was to get the security to a manageable state that is managed by the Iraqis.”

But when asked if there was now better security in Basra on the eve of the formal handover than when British troops first entered, he said: “I really couldn’t answer that. The situation is different, when we arrived here they were living under the boot of Saddam Hussein, the order that they were living under was enforced order.”

In the end it is what Iraqis think that matters most. And most Iraqi residents of the southern city of Basra believe the presence of British troops in the region has been negative. An opinion poll for the BBC’s Newsnight on Friday suggested that 86% of Iraqis thought the overall effect of having British troops in Basra province since the 2003 invasion had been negative.

Only 2% believed that it had been positive. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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