Iraq Troop Withdrawal British Leaving Basra to the Mahdi Militia

Southern Iraq is relatively secure. But the British have not taken advantage of the four years of occupation to develop this bleak region. Now that they are pulling out, the Shiite Mahdi militia are standing by to take over.

When Hussein Ali Kassim left a friend's house a few nights ago in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, the midnight scene was quite unlike what one might expect to see in war-torn Baghdad: Drivers were out and about and fruit sellers plied their sweets beneath street corner lamp posts. There were neither car bombs bursting nor the kind of strictly enforced night-time curfews common in Baghdad.

"The security situation in Basra is good," says Kassim, a local pharmacist. "It's still worse than before the war, but it's improving every month."

That is exactly the conclusion that the British Prime Minister Tony Blair reached this week. On Wednesday, he announced the withdrawal of 1,600 of 7,000 British soldiers stationed in southern Iraq, citing an improved security situation in the town and a drop in murders to 30 in December. Sectarian violence in Basra has fallen "enormously," Blair said.

Compared to the 50 daily murders common in Baghdad, this is indeed an improvement. Reconstruction aid is flowing into the city, and while Iraqis in other parts of the country are battling it out with extremists, Basra's people have been spared the headline-making horrors.

"There is real progress there and we don't want to get in the way of that progress" by staying too long in the country, Blair noted.

Indeed, the situation couldn't be more different in Baghdad. President George W. Bush has begun sending an additional 20,000 troops to the Iraqi capital despite opposition from the US congress.

But does the fact that the British are sending troops home mean "mission accomplished" in southern Iraq? Not really.

Kassim, the pharmacist in Basra, is reluctant to talk candidly about the situation. Why is everything really so quiet in Basra? Who exactly controls the streets?

And who really takes care of imposing order? The police? The British? The Iraqi army? The militias?

"I can't say anything about that at the moment. I'm surrounded by people here. Let's talk about it later," he says.

British fail in Basra

The strategic advantage that the British had from the very beginning was that Basra, unlike other parts of Iraq, boasts a relatively homogeneous population sharing similar religious beliefs. The sectarian wars plaguing the rest of the country never spread here. Shiite-dominated southern Iraq suffered under Saddam, and for this reason, there was less resistance to the presence of foreign troops than was the case in central Iraq.

Added to this, Sunni extremists, al-Qaida in Iraq, and Fedayeen units loyal to the former regime, never gained a foothold in southern Iraq, which meant that Basra was spared the devastating bomb attacks responsible for hundreds of deaths elsewhere in the nation.

The British faced a different set of challenges in their sector, namely to recapture state authority, to mute the influence of Iranian-backed militias, and to focus on fixing war damage inflicted upon this country's poorest region.

Did they succeed? Despite the number of troops deployed here, the answer is no.

Today many parts of the city lack running water. Blackouts are a daily occurrence. Many seriously ill people have to reckon with taking a dangerous journey to Baghdad when they need anything other than aspirin or charcoal pills.

"Before the war we would ask for leukaemia medicine and know that the wait to get it could be long," says an oncologist at Basra's university hospital. "Today, when we make requests, we are pretty certain nothing will arrive."

Even though southern Iraq's oil industry is producing and exporting less oil than it did before for the war, its pumps and pipelines are actually operating at capacity -- aging, damaged valves, and insufficient storage make production increases impossible. There is scant discussion -- on the British side, anyway -- of how this critical economic jewel might one day fuel Iraqi's economic recovery. It would not be unfair to say that the British missed their chance to build a much-needed infrastructure here in this relatively peaceful region where such projects might have been successful.

75 percent of the police are loyal to Sadr

To be sure, the British have neither improved security in the region nor rebuilt a functioning state apparatus independent of Iranian influence. Thus, while the British army officially handed over power to the 10th Division of the Iraqi Army this weekend, locals like Kassim the pharmacist and others are not sure they are up to the task.

The town's police is efficient, albeit dominated by members of the Mahdi, a Shiite militia loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr. According to journalist Ghalid Khazal, 75 percent of the city's police officers follow orders from Sadr headquarters. That number is roughly the same as that mentioned by General Major Hassan Sawadi, the former police chief of Basra, one and a half years ago, when he said. "I estimate that 80 percent of the force's members do not obey my orders."

Tony Blair said that George W. Bush was completely satisfied with British plans to withdraw troops from Iraq. One man, however, is even more pleased by the move, for the British retreat means a gain for his group. Abd al-Karim al Insi, the Basra representative of Shiite ruler Moqtada al-Sadr, sees the departure as affirming an adage popular among Arabs during British colonial exploits in the region 100 years ago: "Nobody knows Mecca better than the people from Mecca."

"Since the invasion, we have pushed for the occupiers to leave Iraq," al Insi said. "Nobody can protect our country better than we can. We welcome this first step in the British withdrawal. Hopefully the Americans will present a timetable soon."

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