British Prime Minister Tony Blair's announcement this week that British troops will begin to withdraw from the southern Iraqi city of Basra as Iraqi troops take over has received mixed reviews. The Bush adminisration says Mr. Blair's plan to cut the U.K.'s 7,100 troops by roughly 20 percent in the Shia stronghold is a sign of success. The Iraqi government has welcomed the withdrawal, but some Iraqis in the region fear that the exit of British forces could allow Shia religious forces to take control.
Richard Beeston is diplomatic editor for The Times of London. He visited Basra earlier in February for the first time since 2003. Scott Simon spoke with him about what he saw on his trip:
What have you heard about local reaction in Basra to the prime minister's announcement?
This has been an anticipated process. When I was in Basra I was able to ask a few local people about the British withdrawal and it seemed to be fairly divided amongst those who thought a sudden pullout could leave a power vacuum and there could be more violence and more instability... and those who thought probably the British had served whatever purpose it was that they'd been sent out to do and it may not make much difference if they were there or if they left.
Are Iraqi forces able to take over the burden of responsibility for patrol and control?
The British troops that I was with seemed quite happy with the training and the level of expertise of the Iraqi Army. They thought that they had achieved a reasonably high level of professionalism. There's a lot of concern still about the police force. As recently as December, the British had to go in and destroy a police station that had effectively been taken over by a private militia — they were running their own prisons and executing people. The police, which after all, is the first line of security in the city, are still the big concern there.
In 2003, there were a lot of reports lauding the British troops for patrolling in their berets — soft headgear as opposed to the full battle dress that U.S. troops were using in the rest of the country, particularly in Anbar Province, and going fishing on their time off and playing soccer with kids. I gather things have hardened considerably since then.
Yes. It was a very, very different place just four years ago when the British went in. Of course, they're very used to peacekeeping operations of the type that we've seen the British involved in — Northern Ireland and Kosovo and other places — and they used that experience in Basra. Some would say that they were too soft in their approach; that they allowed the militias to gain a foothold, and that they weren't there in enough numbers and with enough political commitment back home to really maintain control over the area. And at a certain point over the last couple of years the power shifted to the militias, and they've never really regained the upper hand.
There will still be more than 7,000 British troops on the ground in Iraq. Is Prince Harry likely to be among them?
Yes, he's an officer in a reconaissance unit. They operate mainly along the Iranian border area to try and stop the flow of arms and smuggling and what-not. He'll be pretty busy for the next six months doing that job. There's quite a long tradition of this in the British military — of members of the royal family serving — and I think it could bring on a very different impact on public perceptions. This is no longer seen as just a war for working-class families. It's now going to affect the royal family as well.