Operation Sinbad: Mission failure casts doubt on entire British presence in Iraq

'Rogue elements', politics and lack of manpower in Basra clean-up make limitations of coalition forces frighteningly clear. By Raymond Whitaker

An operation by British forces in southern Iraq to root out death squads and extend civic control in the city of Basra has hit political problems and resulted in a series of retaliatory attacks, The Independent on Sunday has learned.

About 1,000 British soldiers are taking part in Operation Sinbad, seen as a crucial test of the ability of the UK-led multinational force (MNF) in southern Iraq to "clean up" the country's second-largest city. Working with about 2,300 Iraqi troops, the aim is to cordon off areas of Basra one by one, take over police stations infiltrated by "rogue elements" and allow contractors to carry out quick projects aimed at boosting public confidence, such as repairing street lights and clearing rubbish.

But the MNF spokesman, Major Charlie Burbridge, said yesterday that since the start of the operation on 27 September, there had been a spate of "what appear to be co-ordinated attacks" on military convoys. "We are treating these as retaliation by the rogue elements we are targeting." No one had been hurt in the attacks, which numbered about four or five, the major said.

Although two soldiers, one British and one Danish, were killed in Basra last week, the attacks in which they died were not believed to be connected to Operation Sinbad.

The most sensitive side of the operation, intended to last until next February, is the insertion of Royal Military Police "transition teams" into police stations for up to 30 days at a time. Their task is to sort out policemen doing the job properly from those "unable or unwilling to perform their duties".

Many police stations in the city are alleged to be bases for corruption, organised crime and assassinations. "From time to time death squads turn up in Basra, sometimes in police cars," said Major Burbridge. "These are the people we are targeting." He denied that British forces were seeking to confront powerful Shia militias like the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army, which have close ties to the government, saying: "They are part of the structure of Iraq, but there are elements which have broken away, and are not under their central control."

According to other sources, however, there were doubts on the British side about the wisdom of the operation, and as soon as it started there were protests to Baghdad from the militias. "There was deep disquiet among British military commanders and diplomats in Iraq beforehand," said one source. "The Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, immediately demanded that the operation be heavily restricted in scope. It virtually came to a halt after one wave of raids, which demonstrated from the highest level to local militias that they can operate with impunity."

Louise Heywood, head of the UK armed forces programme at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and a Territorial Army officer who served in southern Iraq until earlier this year, saw Operation Sinbad as "almost a last attempt to be seen to be doing something" before security responsibilities are handed over to the Iraqi government, possibly in the first half of next year.

"The aim is to replicate what the Americans have been seeking to do in Baghdad, which is to go from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, clearing out the militias," she said. "But there are not enough British troops available."

Major Burbridge said there had been some initial political difficulties after the head of Basra's security committee, Major General Ali Hamadi, announced Operation Sinbad before it had been cleared by Baghdad. As a result, British troops had not taken part in the first round of raids.

"It is true that the Prime Minister had concerns whether the operation was aimed at sweeping all militias off the streets, but he was assured that it was targeted at individuals," said the spokesman. Last week, he added, British troops took part in the second phase of the operation, cordoning off an area of Basra for 48 hours before handing over to Iraqi forces, who would remain in place for another 10 to 12 days. The intention is to tackle each of the city's 18 districts in the same way, though some doubt whether Sinbad will be sustained beyond the beginning of next month, when British forces are due to change over.

Some analysts see the operation as epitomising the inability of coalition forces to influence events in Iraq. "Britain has never had the forces needed to make a sustained difference to law and order, and meaningful reconstruction is almost non-existent," said Dr Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at Queen Mary College, London. "Their role is a minor one, and the question is whether it justifies the casualties and the cost"

The hope is that if security is handed over to the Iraqis in the first half of 2007, the way could be cleared for a significant reduction in the British deployment, from about 7,200 troops now to a little over 4,000. But such a drawdown, which service chiefs believe is essential to reinforce the British presence in Afghanistan, has been delayed several times by conditions on the ground in Iraq.

Early last month the Ministry of Defence announced an extra 360 soldiers were being sent to Iraq, including Royal Engineers to deal with roadside bombs, a boat troop to step up patrols on the Shatt al-Arab waterway and the military police now being deployed in the police stations.

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