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Victory or defeat as the British handover Basra?

Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minster has announced that Basra will shortly be handed over to the control of the Iraqi government. The war is not popular in Britain and if anything this unpopularity has been increasing over time but it is probably less significant now that Tony Blair has gone. The transfer was not unexpected. In March, the State building in Basra was handed over to the Iraqi authorities. This time last year (more or less) the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, announced that British troops will stay in Basra until the job is done. Does this mean that objectives have been met and that ‘the job’ has really been done?

The handover of power to the Iraqi forces started with the transfer of the state building way-back in March. Effectively this meant that British troops were not involved in moving in and out of the town, a symbolic gesture of some significance to local people who had many complaints about the noise and insecurity around the Palace. This was a withdrawal that took place, according to the BBC, under the cover of darkness. The focus has been on training up the local forces for some time now thought here are still problems with the militias and with what the British commander refers to as ‘malign influences’. The key factors are judgments, and who is making them, about the ability of the Iraqi army to cope with new responsibilities. British troops have been working not only on the security situation but also on reconstruction and training.

Gordon Brown traveled to Basra essentially to thank the troops and to firm up details about the transfer process. The process was announced in outline in late October and of course agreed to, perhaps reluctantly, by the United States. What is happening in Basra contrasts with the level of United States military activity in and around Baghdad. It is interesting that his visit was unannounced in advance and that he did not stray outside the protection of the British forces at their airport base. In Brown’s judgment the transfer is timely and this is also agreed to be the case by the Iraqi Prime Minister. Along with the transfer goes a reduction in the number of troops. Early in 2008, British troops will be down to 2,500 from the current level of 4,500. This eases the pressure on the army as its operations in Iraqi and Afghanistan are stretching resources.

There are some who feel that the British have hardly done themselves proud in Basra. Militia power and lawlessness are still strong. It is interesting that residents report increased security after the British withdrawal from the centre of the city, suggesting that a foreign presence no matter how benign it tries to be is essentially an irritant. Reconstruction has been taking place but life has not returned to normality. Gordon Brown himself believes that Iraq needs investment and economic development as a means of ensuring peace and stability. If the Iraqi army is effective (it will continue to be trained and backed –up by British troops) then there is some hope that peace and reconstruction can continue. Basra will become a test-case for the argument that outside troops are essentially an irritant and that Iraq would return to peaceful conditions more quickly under its own actions. No doubt security analysts will be watching the consequences closely.