Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Basra situation deteriorates as the Brits pull out

Now that new Labour PM Gordon Brown has more or less informed the Bush Administration that the the Brits are leaving Iraq come October whatever happens, the Brits are simply awaiting official orders to evacuate. And as the British retreat, the security situation in Basra, the British area of responsibility deteriorates.

The UK originally sent 40,000 troops to Iraq during the March 2003 invasion, and were given responsibility for the Basra and the south, then a quiet, mostly Shiite sector without much in the way of problems from outside terrorists or Sunni/Shiite violence.Instead of allowing their troops to be deployed elsewhere in Iraq, the Brits opted to take advantage of the calm to withdraw their forces. By the time they got down to about 9,000 or so, in January of 2005, violence had begun to step up...but the political reality in Britain precluded increasing UK forces in Iraq. Instead, the withdrawals continued apace. And the Shiite militias stepped into the vacuum and took control.

At this point, three major Shiite political groups are involved in a bloody gang war for control of Iraq's largest port when they're not firing mortars and rockets at the Brits. The city government is in the hands of various players, and each group has its own turf and checkpoints.

One of the major groups in the area is the Mahdi Army, commanded by our old pal Moqtada al-Sadr. As the Americans make it tough for Mookie and his pals in Baghdad and areas to the north, they've drifted south to Basra. Other players include the Fadhila, or Islamic Virtue Party, who recently pulled out of Maliki's governing coalition and still maintain control of Basra's refineries, and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the country's largest Shiite party...all with their own shooters.

Apart from mere turf, the biggest prize in Basra is oil. The area contains to two-thirds of Iraq's oil resources and is is the country's sole dependable outlet for exporting oil..especially since the British pulled their navy out of the Gulf after the confrontation by Iran.

The militias and their attendant mafias are financed by stolen oil sold outside Iraq, as well as `taxes' on existing businesses. And this is at a time when Iraq's power grid lacks the wherewithal to provide energy to its population.

"The British have basically been defeated in the south," a senior U.S. intelligence official said recently in Baghdad. They've abandoned their former headquarters at Basra Palace, where a recent official visitor from London described them as "surrounded like cowboys and Indians" by the Shiite militias fighters.

As I previously reported, the remaining 5,500 British troops are hunkered down in a fortified compound near an airport outside the city. They rarely come out to play, and have been attacked with mortars or rockets nearly 600 times over the past four months. Like the British Navy, they'll soon be gone.

Perhaps it's for the best.

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