As the British Leave, Whither Basra?

A British soldier patrols in Basra, walking alongside a local citizen. i

A British soldier patrols in Basra in a photo taken Wednesday. British troops will pull out of the area in coming months. Essam Al-Sudani/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Essam Al-Sudani/AFP/Getty Images
A British soldier patrols in Basra, walking alongside a local citizen.

A British soldier patrols in Basra in a photo taken Wednesday. British troops will pull out of the area in coming months.

Essam Al-Sudani/AFP/Getty Images

The Bush administration and senior British government officials are trying to put a good face on London's decision to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq.

On Wednesday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that about 1,600 troops — roughly 20 percent of the U.K.'s force in Iraq — would soon start leaving.

The decision comes just as the United States is increasing its troop commitment. There are concerns that a phased withdrawal by British forces will leave many parts of Iraq vulnerable.

Blair said the decision to begin withdrawing British troops out of southern Iraq will show the Iraqis that the U.K. doesn't want to stay any longer than necessary. Senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney, indicated that the phased withdrawal was part of a well-formed plan.

"The British have done what is really the plan for the country as a whole, which is to be able to transfer security responsibilities to the Iraqis, as conditions permit," Cheney said. "What I see is an affirmation of the fact that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well."

But that may not be the case in many parts of southern Iraq. The British were handed responsibility of the four southern provinces, where the Shia are a vast majority of the population. Unlike elsewhere in Iraq, where U.S. troops have been fighting a Sunni insurgency, the British have been caught in a power struggle among rival Shia militias in the south.

"The problem is, in most of these four provinces, the British essentially gave up," says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Cordesman says U.K. forces lost control of two key provinces — Basra and Maisan — after elections in early 2005 and 2006 that brought a Shiite majority to power.

"Once they came under control, the Shiites firmly were in charge of virtually the entire area and there was little the British could do about it," Cordesman says.

Richard Beeston, diplomatic editor of The Times of London recently returned from a visit to Basra, his first since 2003. He says in 2003, British soldiers were on foot patrol, drove through town in unarmored vehicles and fished in the waters of the Shaat al Arab on their days off. He says the changes he saw four years later are enormous.

"Nowadays all troop movement in and out of the city are conducted at night by helicopter because it's been deemed too dangerous to go on the road and its dangerous to fly choppers during the day," he says.

Beeston says during his latest visit, he noticed a map of the city in one of the military briefing rooms. About half of the city was marked as no-go areas.

British headquarters are mortared and rocketed almost everynight.

This is indicative of many parts of southern Iraq, says Wayne White, a former State department middle east intelligence officer. White says the south is riddled with rival Shiite groups vying for power, and roving criminal gangs because there's nothing to stop them.

"There's virtually nothing down there in the way of governance that answers to Baghdad in an effective way," White says. "There are mayors, there are police but in many cases these people have no loyalty to Baghdad, operate along with the militias, have sympathy with them."

White says there are concerns that a withdrawal of British and Danish troops could trigger a power vacuum in the southern parts of Iraq. About 70 percent of the country's proven oil reserves are in this area.

White says already hundreds of millions of dollars have been siphoned off and it could get worse once coalition forces are phased out.

Another fear: the key supply line for the U.S. military runs from Kuwait, right through southern Iraq, up to Baghdad. White says the British and Danish pullout could leave that route vulnerable.

Iran, which has a strong influence among many people and militias in southern Iraq, poses another concern. Rear Adm. Richard Cobbold, the director of the Royal United Services Institute, a military think tank in London, says both sides of the border are controlled by militant Shia.

"Inevitably there will be a wish by some of the Shias to make the border porous," he says. "And therefore they will try to infiltrate the border."

For now, Cobbold says, the British forces will continue to seal that border. Prime Minister Blair indicated the last of the troops is expected to leave by the end of next year.

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