Britain bows out of a five-year war it could never have won

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Britain handed over security in Basra province yesterday, bringing a formal end to its ill-starred attempt over almost five years to control southern Iraq.

The transfer of power was marked by a parade of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police beside the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which runs past Basra. As helicopters roared overhead it was the biggest show of strength by the Iraqi army forces since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The great majority of people in Basra were glad to see the British go. "You can see the happiness on the faces of everyone," said Adel Jassam, a teacher. "It feels like a heavy burden has been lifted off our chests."

The unpopularity of the British presence is underlined by the results of an opinion poll commissioned by the BBC showing that just 2 per cent of people in Basra believed that the British presence had had a positive effect on their province since 2003. Some 86 per cent said they saw British troops as having a negative impact.

Britain did not suffer a military defeat in southern Iraq, though it lost 134 soldiers and never really established control of the city, the second largest in Iraq.

By the time of yesterday's handover ceremony it had 4,500 troops in Iraq, confined to Basra airport, whose numbers will be reduced to 2,500 by mid-2008.

The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, who was at the ceremony in Basra, said that Britain was not handing over "a land of milk and honey". This is an understatement, since the Basra that Britain leaves behind will be controlled by semi-criminal Shia militias and political movements whose differences are often over carving up local resources.

"This remains a violent society whose tensions need to be redressed," said Mr Miliband, "but they need to be addressed by Iraqi political leaders, and it is politics that is going to come to the fore in the months and years ahead."

The British Army some time ago concluded that its patrols simply provided targets for militiamen without doing any good.

The steady retreat of the British has not so far been followed by a battle for Basra between the three main contenders for power. These are the Fadhila movement, which controls much of the government, the Mehdi Army militia, loyal to the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Badr Organisation of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).

All these groups control in part or in full different units of the security forces, as well as valuable economic concessions, such as Basra port, through which flows much of Iraq's imports. Iran also retains a pervasive though often invisible influence over the militias.

Britain is officially handing over control, nominal though it may have been, of Basra to government security forces. This has supposedly long been the aim of the US and Britain in southern Iraq, but in practice both countries have increasingly favoured one only of the Shia parties, ISCI, as its favoured ally. This may eventually lead to a backlash by the Mehdi Army and Fadhila.

Violence in Basra was never as bad as it was in Baghdad or Mosul, because the city was overwhelmingly Shia. The Sunni and other minority groups have been progressively driven out. The British Army also never tried to impose its authority on the four southern provinces of Iraq to the degree that the US forces tried to win control of central Iraq.

The area where they were meant to be bringing a better life is one of the most devastated in Iraq. Because it was Shia it was never favoured by the over-whelmingly Sunni regime of Saddam. It was also in the frontline in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, when the city was shelled.

The date palms for which southern Iraq was famous were burned or cut down. In the marshes where the Tigris and Euphrates meet, a distinct civilisation had survived for 5,000 years until Saddam drained them so they could no longer provide a sanctuary for his opponents.

There seems to be no end to the miseries that Basra has suffered since the war with Iran started in 1980. The Iran-Iraq war was followed by the first Gulf War, and this in turn by the great Shia uprising of 1991, which began in a square in Basra when a tank gunner fired a shell into one of the omnipresent pictures of Saddam. In the fighting which followed, thousands of Shia were killed and more fled to Iran.

The fall of Saddam was highly popular in Basra, as it was in the rest of Shia Iraq, but while liberation was popular, occupation was not.

British forces had an early lesson about this when they entered the notoriously violent town of al-Majir al-Kabir north of Basra. An attempt to search for weapons led to friction, and during a second patrol this escalated into fighting, and the slaughter on 24 June 2003 of six members of the Royal Military Police who were trapped in the local police station.

Rivalries between different Shia militias remain intense and could explode at any moment. The Mehdi Army is currently obeying a truce called by Mr Sadr. His declared purpose is to root out criminals, and he wants to avoid a military confrontation with ISCI when it is backed by the Americans.

Mr Miliband may be right that Iraqi politicians are better able to handle Iraqi problems than the British, but this does not mean they are effective. The ruling elite in Basra is heavily criminalised, and although the three southernmost Iraqi provinces stand on a reservoir of oil, they remain miserably poor. For this the local leadership is partly to blame, but the leadership of the Shia community in Iraq comes primarily from Baghdad and the shrine cities of Kerbala and Najaf. Basra has always felt exploited and neglected.

Britain stumbled into a small war in southern Iraq which it did not expect to fight and where its aims were always unclear. It is now stumbling out with very little achieved and its military reputation dented, after a conflict in which a victory could never have been won.