August 30, 2004
By Stephen Grey in Basra
Just weeks ago, Basra was being held up as a role model for security operations in Iraq, proof that the softly-softly approach of British troops was the way forward in Iraq; now, those troops are largely confined to their bases, sheltering under a barrage of mortar and gunfire.
More than 500 attacks by hostile forces were reported last month, the Army has revealed. In the past month four soldiers have died in Basra and al-Amarah, a city 100 miles to the north, three of them in combat.
Although the Army refused yesterday to reveal the numbers of combat injuries, military sources said that some of the fiercest engagements had lasted for hours, with some conspicuous acts of bravery involved.
Both cities are predominantly Shia-controlled and, while attention has been focused on the battles between American troops and the Shia militia of the rebel cleric Hojatoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr in Najaf, the British have been engaged by the same al-Mahdi Army further south in cities that were once regarded with pride as havens of relative peace that had escaped the troubles of the American-controlled north.
In the past four weeks, British Army involvement in almost all kinds of reconstruction and training has been virtually suspended. “We are pretty much stuck behind the wire and being mortared and attacked on a daily basis. It is frustrating,” one officer said.
Although the military places most of the blame for the fighting on a backlash against the American siege in Najaf, the conflict has also been a test of the local tactics employed by the British and their commander, Brigadier Andrew Kennett, who has ordered a policy of "de-escalation and then negotiation".
To avoid turning the cities into battlefields and to allow newly trained Iraqi forces to test their own responsibilities, Brigadier Kennett has adopted a defensive posture: refusing to launch counter- attacks on the Mahdi militia, except when asked to do so by the new Iraqi Government.
So far, however, the Iraqi police and National Guard have appeared unwilling, or unable, to prevent the Mahdi Army taking to the streets and entrenching its control.
"We are acutely aware that Mahdi militia have been openly dominating the ground and parading with all their weapons. The Iraqi police have not been able to take them on," a British source said.
Squadron Leader Helen Hindmarsh, a military spokesman, said that troops in the two cities were facing "regular attacks by mortar, RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) and small-arms fire".
In cities where British forces were once happy to move around in civilian or soft-skinned vehicles, and where commanders were urging Western civilians and organisations to come and invest, most British personnel will not go anywhere except behind at least an inch of armour. In some cases, troops have been using helicopters just to travel from Basra city centre to Basra airport.
Tanks are now widely used around Basra, particularly at checkpoints. Even a convoy to bring medical supplies to the city’s main hospital has had to be escorted in by Challenger tanks and Warrior armoured vehicles.
Al-Amarah has seen the worst fighting, with 361 attacks this month. There were seven in July. "We can’t stick our neck out of our base without getting attacked," one British officer said.
Speaking by telephone from the city, Abu Maytham, the Iraqi police chief, said that the Army’s city-centre base was coming under regular pounding from mortar positions.
"The militia keep missing their target and this has meant quite a few civilians have been killed," he said.
Mr Maytham also revealed that prisoners at the city jail had broken out last week after a revolt by inmates. Several dozen have escaped capture.
Copyright 2004 Times Newspapers Ltd.