September third saw the hand over of Basra Palace from British to Iraqi control. The 550 British troops previously stationed there have gone to join the last remaining 5000 British troops in the airport base on the city's outskirts. The handover brought mixed responses from Iraqis and from the press.
Gordon Brown insisted that the move was planned as part of the British withdrawal strategy and was not a defeat, stating that in an over-watch role the troops could re-intervene on the request of the Iraqis and promised we would still "discharge our duties to the Iraqi people and the international community." Most press reports however draw attention to the lack of security, gang-warfare, and high militia presence in the city, calling the withdrawal a defeat.
One headline in the Guardian: "British leave with the job not done." And I think that about sums it up. The British Labour government's priority is to bring the troops home as quickly as possible, with an election coming up and the lack of popularity in Britain for the war and our troops continued presence in it. Not that I'm knocking it.
As I have always believed, teamed with (Islam's enemy no.1) the U.S., Britain was never going to bring security to the south — just as the same is true for the U.S. in the north. In fact I have always thought (and 69% of Iraqis think) they are causing as much violence as they are quelling. That is not surprising given the backdrop to the war: the build up of years of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world, Bush Senior's lying to the Shiites and Kurds causing thousands of their deaths in 1991, the hollow precursor for the war and heavyweight belief that it was all for the oil.
Coalition atrocities that have since heightened resentment and hatred for the occupiers, combined with constant threats to Iran that have backed-up the cynicism of a war on Muslims, and the fact that almost every aspect of Iraqi life has gotten worse under the occupation have continued to worsen and intensify the insurgency. All the above cut the British troop's work out for them, and that's before we even get onto the sectarian violence caused by Saddam favoring the Sunnis and oppressing the Shiites and Kurds — but also kept a lid on by his fierce rule.
Sectarian violence has been worsened by outside influences and actors. It is widely thought that the Arab states, like Saudi Arabia, are supporting Sunni groups, and according to official U.S. sources Iran is supporting and arming Shia militias.
The Shia militias are predominant in the British controlled south, where Iran has direct border access, meaning if they are arming and funding militias, it is easier than it is for the Arab states to support the Sunni groups. To make matters worse, Iran has the added motive of the ever-present danger of a U.S. attack, making Iran determined to make the U.S.'s life difficult in Iraq. Unfortunately Britain suffers first and worst from any of Iran's pre-emptive defense measures.
So, having said all that, the fact that British troops have been able to hand-over power to the Iraqi forces in all but one of the southern provinces they controlled without any severe consequences says a lot about the abilities and strengths of the British army.
It also says that the MoD has realized the point I have made in this article: British troops can only maintain a certain level of security; the attacks leveled at them prevent them from bringing total security and peace. Therefore, when they have trained the Iraqi police and army in that province sufficiently, it is right for them to hand over control. After all, we will never know if they can do it unless we let them try.
I'll finish by saying that I don't know enough about the situation in the south — figures, polls, etc — to really say whether it is a defeat or not. But pulling out to a safe distance, removing a target that creates its share of violence, avoiding the loss of anymore British troops while continuing to train Iraqi forces, monitor the situation and be on-call if needed, sounds like the best solution all round. As the saying goes: you'll never know unless you go.