Saturday, July 19, 2008

British Forces Staying Or Going?

British forces withdrawing from Basra in Sep. 07, creating a vacuum that Shiite militias filled

On July 14 there were three articles about Britain’s presence in Iraq with seemingly contradictory stories. The Voices of Iraq had a headline reading in part, “Brit forces not to stay long – coalition commander.” The Associated Press ran a similar title that day, “Britain plans to downsize Iraq forces.” The Times of London on the other hand, said “Major-General Barney White-Spunner: troops to have a long-term Iraq role.” That was followed by a story the next day in the Independent that said, “Brown ends hopes of withdrawal from Iraq.” England is the other major component of the Coalition of the Willing remaining in Iraq. They have 4,000 troops in the southern city of Basra. This year they were planning on cutting their forces, but that was cancelled when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched a crackdown against the Mahdi Army. The articles pointed to England’s determination to lesson their footprint in Iraq, while maintaining a presence there.

For all intents and purposes, England was the Coalition of the Willing when the U.S. went into Iraq. The British sent in 26,000 troops as part of the invasion force in March 2003. By July 2003 they were down to only 9,000. The U.S. gave them responsibility for the southern provinces of Basra, Maysan, Dhi Qar, and Muthanna. At first, the British were praised for their interactions with the Shiites. It was claimed that because of their experience in Northern Ireland, they were better judges of how to interact with a population than the U.S. were. That proved to be a false perception, and an internal British Army review from 2006 said that they had failed to win over hearts and minds in the south.

Eventually the British were based solely in Basra, the center of Iraq’s shipping and oil industry. The city was teeming with new Shiite political parties, that each had their own militia. These included the Fadhila Party, the Badr Brigade, the Mahdi Army, Iraqi Hezbollah, Thar Allah, and others. Instead of fighting them, the British tried to integrate them into the security forces. This only allowed the political parties that controlled them to steal, smuggle oil, and kill their opponents under official cover. At the same time, as the Shiite groups grew in power their attacks on the British increased. In October 2005, they claimed that many of these attacks were supported by Iran that was providing Explosively Formed Projectiles (EFPs) that could penetrate tanks. In September 2006, the British launched Operation Sinbad that was aimed at reforming the local police that had been taken over by the political parties, and then moved onto try to clear the cities of militias. The British didn’t have the numbers to make this successful. By 2007, they had withdrawn to the Basra Palace, and later to the airport outside of the city, claiming that they were only making the situation worse. This created a power vacuum in the city that the Shiite parties were only too happy to fill. That same year, the British started another round of withdrawals that the U.S. tried to slow down because of fears of the militias and Iranian influence in Basra. By December the English turned over control of the province to the Iraqis claiming that they were ready for the task, and said they planned on reducing their troops to 2,500 in 2008. Early that year, the Iraqi forces drew up a campaign to retake Basra city, and this began to change Britain’s plans. By March, the English said they wouldn’t withdraw any forces because they needed them to train Iraqi forces for their Basra operation.

On March 25, 2008 Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki unexpectedly jumped started Iraqi operations and started Knight’s Charge to clear Basra of militias. During the fighting, the British provided support to the Iraqi forces. Afterwards, England announced that it would send troops back into the city to help train Iraqis. General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker also met with the British Defense Secretary Browne and the Chief of the Defense Staff Sir Stirrup and convinced them into maintaining England’s 4,000 troops. Agence France Presse reported that 120 specialists were being flown in to help with the training recently.

Even with all these changes, London continues to hold onto their plan to withdraw more troops, while maintaining a long-term presence in Iraq. England still wants to withdraw the 2,500 troops, but now in 2009. At the same time, the British General in charge of the South said that his forces would remain in the south to help support and train Iraqi troops. Underreported is the fact that the English also need to sign a status of forces agreement (SOFA) with Baghdad by the end of the year to keep forces in Iraq past 2008. British authorities said they were going to follow America’s lead, and that now looks like a one-year memorandum of understanding rather than a long-term security arrangement.

During their five years in Iraq, the British have run into some unique problems in the south. They quickly drew down their troop levels, while coming under increasing attack by militias. Despite operations like Sinbad, they were never able to effectively deal with the Shiite gunmen. By 2007 they largely abdicated their security duties and withdrew from Basra just as the U.S. was sending in more troops under the Surge. The move outside of the city, and its consequences led to Prime Minister Maliki’s offensive in March 2008. Now the English are back in Basra helping Iraqi troops, just as they were before their retreat. The British are still planning on having a long-term arrangement with Iraq through a status of forces agreement, just with fewer troops. Overall, the British suffered from both a lack of troops, and an effective strategy to deal with the militias. They were also partly responsible for the mess in Basra due to their policies. Now that Iraqi forces are being more assertive, hopefully the British can play a more helpful role supporting them.


Agence France Presse, “MoD to send 120 more troops to Iraq,” 7/14/08
- “US wants Britain to lead ‘surge’ in southern Iraq,” 3/23/08

Alsumaria, “Britain to delay withdrawal from Iraq,” 3/20/08

Associated Press, “Britain plans to downsize Iraq force,” 7/14/08

BBC, “Iran ‘behind attacks on British,’” 10/5/05

Cochrane, Marisa, “The Battle for Basra,” Institute for the Study of War and Weekly Standard, 5/31/08

Dagher, Sam, “British hand over Basra in disarray,” Christian Science Monitor, 12/17/07

DeYoung, Karen, “U.S. Has Little Influence, Few Options in Iraq’s Volatile South,” Washington Post, 3/29/08

Ghosh, Bobby, “Maliki’s Moment of Truth in Basra,” Time, 3/25/08

Haynes, Deborah, “Major-General Barney White-Spunner: troops to have long-term Iraq role,” Times of London, 7/14/08

Hazelwood, Phil, “Britain’s Brown struggles to turn page on Iraq,” Middle East Online, 3/17/08

Independent, “Brown ends hopes of withdrawal from Iraq,” 7/15/08

Kramer, Andrew, “U.S.-Led Coalition Becoming Ever More All-American,” New York Times, 9/15/07

Kukis, Mark, “Has US Ceded Southern Iraq?” Time, 10/8/07

Loyd, Anthony, “Short of kit, short of support: how the Army failed in Basra,” Times, 3/18/08

Norton-Taylor, Richard, “British troops to stay in Basra ‘for the long term,’” 5/2/08

Rayment, Sean, “Iraq war was badly planned, says Army,” Telegraph, 11/5/07

Roggio, Bill, “Mahdi Army taking significant casualties in Baghdad, South,” Long War, 3/29/08

Russell, Ben, “Warlords replace Army in Basra,” Independent, 12/3/07

Sengupta, Kim, “The final battle for Basra is near, says Iraqi general,” Independent, 3/20/08

Sengupta, Kim and Penketh, Anne, “US ‘delayed’ British withdrawal from Basra,” Independent, 10/16/07

Sevastopulo, Demetri, and Barker, Alex, and Fidler, Stephen, “UK takes flak from Basra flare-up,” Financial Times, 4/2/08

Spiegel, Peter, “British tout Basra model,” Los Angeles Times, 12/14/07

Strobel, Warren and Youssef, Nancy, “Paltry results of Iraqi offensive silence U.S. withdrawal talk,” McClatchy Newspapers, 4/1/08

Susman, Tina, “Al-Sadr and rival Shiite leader reach truce,” San Francisco Chronicle, 10/7/07

Voices of Iraq, “British army: units deployed in Basra,” 4/5/08
- “Iran has legal interests in Iraq, Brit forces not to stay long – coalition commander,” 7/14/08

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