An Iraqi commander, Major-General Mohan Hafedh Fahad al-Firaiji, announced that the British military handed control of the Al-Basrah Palace base to Iraqi Army troops early today. "From now on, the area is considered a military area and no one can approach it. Only those who are authorized," al-Firaiji said.
Some 550 U.K. troops had been based at the palace, which was bombarded daily by mortar and rocket fire. They will now be based at Al-Basrah Airport, joining the remaining 5,000 British troops in Iraq.
The British Defense Ministry says it expects to hand over all security for Al-Basrah Governorate to Iraqi forces this autumn.
Speaking in Al-Basrah today, a British commander, Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Sanders, said that British troops are no longer deployed in the city of Al-Basrah as of today. "This is the point where we ask the Iraqis, the Iraqi security forces, to start to take responsibility for the security of Basrah themselves," Sanders told the Reuters news agency.
Sanders added that U.K. troops "will continue to operate in Basrah when it is necessary, but we won't come in simply for the sake of doing so.... If there are threats in Basrah we need to deal with, then we'll come in to deal with them."
British officials have portrayed the shift as progress, but many analysts are skeptical about the move and about assessments of the situation in southern Iraq.
Lessons From Al-Basrah
The International Crisis Group (ICG), a respected think-tank that brings together presidents, ministers, and other influential figures from democratic countries, recently released a report on the situation in Al-Basrah.
Peter Harling, a senior Mideast analyst for the ICG, said the report regards Al-Basrah as a laboratory of what has gone wrong in the past few years -- and says it holds lessons that are applicable to the whole of Iraq.
The first such lesson is that violence results from complex causes, and is not solely the result of sectarianism and terrorism. There are also political killings and vendettas among Islamist parties. Local officials say that about 5,000 assassinations have occurred in Al-Basrah in the past two years. At the same time, the local population faces coercion and is obliged to choose sides and seek protection from militias.
Al-Basrah has also shown that violence has become the routine means of wielding power by political actors doubling as militia leaders, and that the solution to these problems is not to bolster the existing political structures and treat political parties as partners, as the United States and Britain have been doing until now.
The last lesson, according to Harling, is that the British military's dealings with locals, supposedly more subtle than those of the U.S. troops, make little difference in the overarching dynamics of the war.
Harling says the leaders of the international coalition should realize that the Iraqi government’s political parties are not building democracy, but destroying what is left of it.
"The Baghdad government presents itself as a national unity government. If it wants to deserve that label, it has to stand up to its responsibilities, which it hasn’t been doing at all since the surge has started," Harling said. "Very little has been done in addressing the key causes of violence, and in particular reaching out to the Sunni Arab population, taking into account its most legitimate demands."
At the same time, Harling said, the Baghdad government, which has been relying on international sympathy and support, needs to realize that this goodwill won’t last forever.
He concludes that Iraq’s neighbors are involved in the conflict indirectly.
Mustafa Alani, the director of security and terrorism studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, agrees. He says that Iran could play a major role in pacifying the southern part of Iraq, but Tehran is not interested. Instead, "Iranian policy is to play with all these [militia] groups. They cannot put a finger on one group and support it," Alani said.
He says it is impossible for Tehran to predict which Shi'ite militia will emerge as the most powerful -- so it has trained and armed them all.