Bloodshed in Basra

Thirteen months have passed since British Prime Minister Tony Blair described Britain’s military operation in Basra as “successful” and “complete”.

Like United States President George Bush’s earlier boast of “mission accomplished”, these words now ring hollow. This week fighting raged through Basra’s streets, while 4 100 British troops sat walled up at an airbase 8km down the road. The battle shows that Iraq’s improved security is fragile. It also raises awkward questions about the continuing British presence.

The violence began after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki moved to “reimpose law” in Basra by instructing the national army to wrest power from the Shia militia that control it. Why he should have chosen this moment to assert himself in the oil-rich city is a mystery and one that is deepened by his admission last year that he cannot move Iraqi forces around without the say-so of the Americans.

Perhaps the Bush administration, aware that its ability to postpone withdrawal will come to an end with the president’s term, urged al-Maliki to act while he can still rely on its protection.

The most chilling feature of the unfolding violence is the embroilment of factions of the Mehdi Army. The ceasefire that the leader of this Shia sect, Moqtada al-Sadr, reaffirmed recently was the principal reason the British could withdraw from central Basra without a shot being fired.

If the ceasefire is cracking, that could have dire effects on the rest of the country. At the time of the pull-out British commanders claimed they were leaving the city in the hands of the Iraqi army. The truth, exposed by this week’s bloody battle, is that the militias always remained entrenched.

The Iraqi army might still welcome the British offering potential fall-back support, even though they must now understand that it is not a fall-back that can be relied on. They might be grateful, too, for air surveillance and training, even though this is not on a scale that can justify the current number of troops. But while British generals pray that they can avoid getting entangled, there are many other Iraqis who see occupation as a reason to support the extremists.

The British government struggled this week to see off a parliamentary attempt to launch an inquiry into the war, saying it would be allowed once the troops were home. The army would be better served by an immediate inquiry that might shed light on some of the difficulties it faces.

But the new violence exposes how British troops have been reduced to bystanders. It is plainer than ever that they should be brought back sooner rather than later. If al-Maliki succeeds in Basra without British troops, that would create a respectable moment to make that overdue move. — Â

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