Special Report

The Battle for Basra

How the British won -- and lost -- Iraq's second largest city.

By and 10.31.05

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The proverbial library of successful counter-insurgencies -- a woefully small collection -- is dominated by the near-legendary campaigns of the British, including those carried out in Malaya, Aden, and Oman. Until recently, some observers thought it entirely possible that the British effort in southern Iraq would join this catalog of battlefield achievements. Those hopes -- once prevalent among the media and military experts -- died a most public death early this fall, when British soldiers rushed to rescue two special forces operatives that had been arrested by Iraqi police. After storming the compound, the troops were confronted by squads of heavily armed militiamen who had strategically intermixed themselves with the riotous crowd. The resultant firefight saw British armored vehicles pelted with Molotov cocktails and British soldiers wounded by hurled explosives.

At home, Britons were stunned by the graphic footage of their soldiers being assaulted in a city thought to be "safe," especially in comparison to the blood-soaked urban areas of the Sunni Triangle which dominate news coverage emanating out of Iraq. The violent imagery was only the latest and most troubling indication of the British military's failure in Basra and its environs, a disastrous turn of events which seemed unthinkable two years ago, when British troops were welcomed into Basra with relatively open arms.

The root of this failure stems from the very strategy that was once lauded as the antidote for insurgent violence. Known as the "soft approach," the British strategy in southern Iraq centered on non-aggressive, nearly passive responses to violent flare-ups. Instead of raids and street battles, the British concentrated on building relationships with local leaders and fostering consensus among Iraqi politicos. In Basra, the British were quick to build and expand training programs for a city police force. As a symbol of their faith in stability-by-civility, the British military took to donning the soft beret while on patrol, avoiding the connotations of war supposedly raised by the American-style Kevlar helmets.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion, this "soft" approach seemed remarkably successful, especially when juxtaposed with the chaos that had engulfed other parts of Iraq. Basra seemed to adapt relatively well to the new order of things, with little in the way of street battles or casualties. Both the British and American media -- ever-ready to point out the comparable failures of American arms -- energetically hailed the peaceful and stable atmosphere in Basra as a significant indicator of the virtues of the British approach, upholding it as the tactical antithesis to the brutal and aggressive Yanks. The Dallas Morning News reported in 2003 that military experts from Britain were already boasting that U.S. forces in Iraq could "take a cue from the way their British counterparts have taken control of Basra." Charles Heyman, editor of the highly-respected defense journal Jane's, asserted: "The main lesson that the Americans can learn from Basra and apply to Baghdad is to use the 'softly-softly' approach."

The reporting also featured erudite denunciations of the rigid rules of engagement that governed the United States military, while simultaneously championing British outreach. Ian Kemp, a noted British defense expert, suggested in November 2004 that the "major obstacle" in past U.S. occupations and peacekeeping efforts was their inability to connect with locals due to the doctrinal preeminence of force protection. In other words, had Americans possessed the courage to interface with the Iraqi, they might enjoy greater success.

It did not take long before the English press allowed the great straw man of a violent American society to seep into their explanations for the divergent approaches. The Sunday Times of London proclaimed "armies reflect their societies for better or for worse. In Britain, guns are frowned upon -- and British troops faced with demonstrations in Northern Ireland must go through five or six stages, including a verbal warning as the situation gets progressively more nasty, before they are allowed to shoot. In America, guns are second nature." Such flimsy and anecdotal reasoning -- borne solely out of classical European elitist arrogance -- tinged much of the reporting out of Basra.

AS A RESULT OF THE EFFUSIVE media celebration, even some in the British military began believing their own hype, with soldiers suggesting to reporters in May 2003 that the U.S. military should "look to them for a lesson or two." As a British sergeant told the Christian Science Monitor: "We are trained for every inevitability and we do this better than the Americans." According to other unnamed British military officials, America had "a poor record" at keeping the peace while Basra only reinforced the assertion that the British maintain "the best urban peacekeeping force in the world."

The media-generated facade of a successful counter-insurgency effort ignored the creeping infiltration of violent and extremist elements into Basra society, a wide-spread penetration which has led to the tenuous situation now facing both British and Iraqi authorities in southern Iraq.

The subterranean infiltration began to bubble to the surface in early 2004, as tensions between the coalition and the Mahdi Army of Muqtada Al-Sadr came to a boiling point. While the fighting in Basra between Sadr's forces and the British paled in comparison to the battles in Najaf, the skirmishes that did occur indicated that Britain's stability initiatives had been woefully superficial. Not one precinct of the Basra police force responded to the violence, demonstrating that the force had been thoroughly corrupted by the insurgents. The city's chief of police ordered his police to stand down and refuse to assist the British, which many British officers took as a tacit exhortation for police to aid Sadr's forces. Iraqis themselves were quickly brought into line by the extremists, as numerous Iraqi employees of the British government were murdered and tortured, their hands displayed on pikes outside of British headquarters.

The British response to these provocations was virtually non-existent, with army officials heeding warnings by "local leaders" that they avoid retaliatory measures. This inaction seemed only to embolden the Shi'ite extremists and their allies in the militias, who -- over the next six months -- began to accelerate their already advanced designs of transformation and intimidation.

The British government's inability to adjust to the rising danger posed by Shi'ite militias put British soldiers in an untenable position. Sworn to their ethos of non-intervention, the British found themselves virtually paralyzed in responding to provocations. Shi'ite militias quickly preyed upon this tactical contradiction, with attacks against British forces steadily increasing throughout 2004 and into 2005. The gunmen of the Mahdi Army regularly dueled with British soldiers, who were made especially vulnerable due to their command's insistence that they travel in unarmored vehicles, so as not to threaten the populace. Ridiculously, the British Army often found themselves fighting the very police they had trained months prior. This equivocation-under-fire policy of London has been disastrous for British morale, with high-ranking officers -- such as Lt. Colonel Nick Henderson, commander of the celebrated Coldstream Guards -- recently resigning out of disgust for the government's adherence to a non-armored and non-aggressive policy.

WHILE THE BRITISH WERE RELUCTANT to decisively involve themselves in the politics of Basra and southern Iraq, neighboring Iran was quick to signal its enthusiasm for filling the proverbial void. As Time magazine reported in August, thousands of Iranian-influenced paramilitaries -- along with their Iranian intelligence handlers -- poured into the Basra area soon after the fall of Baghdad. Over the following two years, Iranian agents -- operating under the aegis of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps -- have begun to dominate the political life of Basra, creating powerful militias and political parties which control areas supposedly guarded by the British forces. Their influence has become so pervasive that British officers are now forced to meet with their representatives -- with berets in hand -- to accomplish even the simplest civic tasks.

The geographical realities of southern Iraq -- coupled with the small size of the British military contingent based in Basra -- ensured that Iranian agents would be able to accrue influence in southern Iraq. However, the rapid and brutal nature of their takeover endeavor belies London's efforts to shape a political environment that could successfully ward off the more overt encroachments carried out by Iranian provocateurs. Determined to avoid "inflaming" the local populace, the British stayed behind their ramparts, only sallying forth for the odd patrol or to meet with their cultivated set of Basra elites. By failing to project power throughout Basra and its environs, the British military all but invited an external challenge, one that is now actively targeting their soldiers with highly sophisticated explosives shipped factory-direct from Iranian military bases.

Due to the soft-handed British response to extremist escalation, Basra now teeters on the precipice of mob rule. While the kidnapping and murder of reporter Steven Vincent in August attracted significant Western attention, it was only one example of the trend towards anarchy in Basra. On the streets, bearded fundamentalists harass local youth, threatening them with death unless they adhere to stringent religious edicts. British-friendly politicians, liquor-store owners, and university students are routinely "disappeared," while women are being pushed back into home-bound seclusion. Hezbollah flags and posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini adorn government buildings. The all-powerful militias, such as the Iranian-trained Badr Corps, flaunt their new power, taunting the coalition with invective while dominating the city's government.

Once the centerpiece of the British plan to maintain order using Iraqi forces, the British-trained Basra police force is now thoroughly infiltrated by violent militia groups who wear blue by day and ski masks at night -- the only remnant of their loyalty to the West being their massive stocks of British-supplied weaponry. The exasperated chief of Basra's police recently stated to reporters that over half of his force answered to militia leaders, and that peace was being maintained only through appeasement. With Basra civilians cowed and the levers of civic power increasingly coming under the domination of fractious religious parties, it has become tragically apparent that, for all intents and purposes, British forces have been relegated to the role of mere spectators.

OF COURSE, DEFENDERS OF THE British approach to the security situation in southern Iraq will deftly point out the considerable differences that exist between the American and British positions within Iraq. A primary distinction is the sympathies of the population itself, who -- while perhaps not welcoming -- were far more accommodating of a British presence than the Sunni population was towards its American occupiers, making the maintenance of their favor more important. Furthermore, British forces stationed in Iraq possessed only a fraction of the firepower and brute force made available to American forces, requiring the British army to tread lightly.

The tactical realities of Basra did indeed prescribe a different approach to peacekeeping -- but did not entail a virtual surrender of control to extremist elements. With a somewhat sympathetic population, the British could have been far more forceful in girding the regional political process from takeover by fanatic actors. Instead, they dodged the controversy that would inevitably ensue by welcoming all comers and challenging no one, a decision that was sure to facilitate the rise of those who possess and are willing to use violent means. Perhaps this ascension was inevitable, but the ease by which it was accomplished calls into question the fortitude behind the eloquent pro-democracy statements of British leaders such as Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The purpose of this article is not to celebrate the turn of events in Basra or to express even the slightest hint of schadenfreude; quite the opposite, as its sole intent is to point out the failings that have endangered and now threaten to derail the entire process of Iraqi democratization, wasting the invaluable contributions of thousands of brave and resourceful British soldiers. Any achievements that have come out of Basra -- the avoidance of full-scale civil war being one -- are primarily the result of the heroic efforts carried out by British servicemen and women. The British government, however, through its insistence on an insufferably non-interventionist policy, has risked the survival of even these limited successes. Due to their continued recalcitrance, the British military, along with the burgeoning democratic institutions of Iraq, may soon pay the price for the once celebrated "soft" approach, which has been revealed as a camouflage intended to preface the absence of any cohesive policy whatsoever.

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About the Author

Patrick Devenny is the Henry M. Jackson National Security Fellow at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C. Email: patrick.devenny@gmail.com

About the Author

Robert T. McLean is a Research Associate at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C.