Goodbye Basra, Day Three: Sand Castles

19.12.07

Categorie: Axe in Iraq '07, Iraq |

With new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown promising a 30-percent cut to the 5,000-strong British force in southern Iraq by spring 2008, a lot of units currently based at Basra Air Station are eyeing an early departure. But not the Joint Helicopter Force.

“We’ve drawn down as far as we’re going to,” Wing Commander Ian Marston says of his 200 troops and roughly dozen Lynx and Merlin helicopters. Since abandoning downtown Basra positions this year (“removing the irritant”), the mostly British coalition army in southern Iraq has assumed an “overwatch” role, providing some select training to Basra’s 30,000 Iraqi cops and soldiers then sending them out the gate to patrol the oil-rich region. If they get into a bind, they can call on the Brits for help. That help might mean flying overhead spotting militiamen with the Lynx’s side-mounted cameras. It might mean deploying a small fighting force aboard the speedy Merlins to rescue pinned-down Iraqi troops. Either way, it’s probably going to require helicopters, so the Joint Helicopter Force is here to stay, perhaps for years. Recognizing this, the British Ministry of Defense just bought six slightly used Merlins off the Danes in order to boost their hard-worked fleet.

joint-helicopter-force-merlin-and-lynx-ah9-basra-air-station-dec-14-2007small.jpgThis is the way the foreign troop presence in Iraq is going to evolve. As Iraqi forces all over the country improve – and they are, albeit slowly – and as occupying forces acknowledge that, often, they cause as much violence as they prevent … and as the foreigners realize that re-making Iraq in their own image is not worth the cost in blood and treasure, the foreigners will begin to depart, leaving behind only the bare minimum force required to guarantee Iraq doesn’t collapse overnight. Baghdad will offer up the large numbers of infantry needed to patrol city streets and protect key infrastructure. The U.S. and Britain will provide the high-tech supporting capabilities that Iraq can’t quite master or afford – and that might mean the difference between victory and defeat for Iraqi forces when they square off against terrorist and militia groups that themselves are stacked with clever, battle-hardened street fighters.

U.S. General David Petraeus’ “surge” campaign dispersed U.S. soldiers into small urban outposts where they lived and worked alongside Iraqis and showed them how to police their own neighborhoods. This, more so than any illusory and fleeting increase in troop numbers, is the real heart of the surge and the reason it succeeded to any degree. But now with Iraq increasingly religiously segregated and the militias seemingly exhausted, a détente has emerged that will allow the U.S. to jump-start a process that it prematurely began back in 2005: consolidating at major bases, shedding infantry in favor of high-tech supporting forces, and truly letting the Iraqis bear the burden of providing their own security.

But it’s not as though coalition officers expect that security to be anywhere near perfect. They’ve told me as much on multiple occasions during my stay in Basra: “It’s not going to be like London.” There’s still a significant chance that the current lull in violence represents the calm before a full-scale Iraqi civil war pitting Sunnis against Shias. But if that’s the case – if the Iraqi military splits down the middle along religious lines amid renewed fighting – then the U.S. and Great Britain shouldn’t be involved anyways, and barricaded inside Basra Air Station and other remote bases is the right place to be.

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4 Responses to “Goodbye Basra, Day Three: Sand Castles”

  1. [...] Related: Goodbye Basra, Day Three: Sand Castles Goodbye Basra, Day Two: Big Bad Rides Goodbye Basra, Day One: Incoming! Wash Times: Brits hand over WPR: Brits bugger out Basra pics No Comments so far Leave a comment RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI Leave a comment Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong> [...]

  2. [...] Basra International, with its spacious, modern terminal and 14,000-foot concrete runway, was a major target of British forces when they swept into Iraq on the flanks of the U.S. invasion force in March 2003. Quickly the airport became the centerpiece of British military infrastructure in southern Iraq. In those heady days military activity dominated the airport. But Basra province, with an extensive education system, large date farms, Iraq’s only two ports and most of the country’s oil reserves, was vital to Iraq’s recovery. The region would need a major civilian airport – and British officials knew it. [...]

  3. [...] And where’s the British Army during all this? Hunkered at the airport outside Basra, where in December Major General Graham Binns signed documents officially handing over security in the region to Iraqi forces. I was there for the ceremony (videos here and here), and in the aftermath I wrote that the British had effectively surrendered any ability to intervene in Basra. With no forward bases, no intelligence apparatus in the city of Basra, less nimble equipment and no political will to suffer a single additional casualty in Iraq, the roughly 3,000 Brits remaining in the country can do little but wait out the current fighting. [...]

  4. [...] After a week of heavy fighting between the Iraqi Army and Sadrist militias, Basra is quiet again. We know the U.S. Air Force played a big role in the battle, dropping bombs to boost Baghdad’s assault on the city. But where were the roughly 4,000 Brits who operate out of the international airport a few miles from Basra? At first it looked like the Brits would offer up only air, intel and logistics support, according to some reports: British troops have deployed outside their base on the edge of Basra in support of the Iraqi operations, British military spokesman Major Tom Holloway said on Sunday. “There are no plans for our troops to enter the city. We are providing other forms of support,” he told Agence France-Presse. This includes air support and surveillance as well as logistical back-up including refueling helicopters and supplying ammunition and medical supplies. [...]

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