Retreat from Basra: the slow death of the Iraq campaign

In the week that British forces departed from Basra Palace, Kim Sengupta reports on the propects for a country where so many have died – and are still dying

Hassan Ali Ibrahim remembers his father talking about the last time the British were in Basra. The fighting that took place then spread across Iraq as the Shias in the south, the Sunnis in Baghdad and the Kurds in the north rose up against the invaders.

The rebellion came after Major-General Sir Stanley Maude had captured Baghdad in 1917. Six thousand Iraqis and 500 British and Indian troops had died by the time it had been put down after a prolonged campaign of attrition.

Following the invasion of the country in 2003, the headquarters for the small UK contingent in Baghdad, working with the Americans, was named Maude House. It was an ill-advised choice, for what has happened since bears remarkable similarity to events 90 years ago.

No one knows quite how many Iraqis have died in the four years since Saddam Hussein was deposed. One estimate says 655,000. We can, though, be sure how many British servicemen and women have perished – 169, and counting.

The British began their retreat last week, moving out of Basra Palace, Saddam's former southern residence, to the airport, ready, apparently, to move again if the Iraqi authorities need help. The question that Iraqis ponder is: what has it all achieved?

In terms of establishing an orderly government in Basra, and a decent life for its people, the occupation has been a failure. Militias rule the roost, though there is a fragile balance of power among rival Shia units, while the British became sitting ducks for insurgent attacks, with 90 per cent of the violence here directed at them.

Hassan is sitting with two friends at the Salman chai house in central Basra. They are arguing over whether the British were right to go – a move seen here more as an ignominious defeat than an orderly withdrawal. Hassan, whose father fought the British occupiers all those years ago, is worried. He says: "It is, of course, the case that we do not want foreign forces here. If the Iraqi army can take over and maintain security, that is fine. But if they can't, then we shall have big problems."

Abdullah Qais, 46, a carpenter, thinks it right that the British have departed. But he, too, has his concerns. He says: "We do not want to be a colony, but we have got a lot of bad people here, people with guns. The British should have controlled them."

Then there is the issue of funds for reconstruction projects. Ahmed Ghanem, a governor at the village school in Majoram Sukemi, near Basra, which has been renovated by British forces, said: " When the British go, our government will provide funds. But that will take time."

But the British mood now was summed up by one officer who told me last week: "Even my mother feels that Iraq is not worth the life of another British soldier. But we are where we are now, and there will be some losses as the Government decides what exactly we do next."

But if the Iraqis are left feeling dissatisfied and fearful, Britain's US allies are left fuming. Where once the nations stood "shoulder to shoulder", now there are bitter recriminations and the disengagement of UK forces.

The handover of the palace to the Iraqi authorities was due to take place in early August. It was delayed after the Americans complained that this would threaten their supply lines from Kuwait as they carried out their "surge", George W Bush's last throw of the dice in the war, in Baghdad and the central areas.

The British decision to resist pressure from the Americans for further delays was followed by charges from Washington that Basra has been "lost" and US troops may have to be sent south to fill the "vacuum". President Bush has raised the spectre of Iran otherwise seeking to increase its influence in the region.

In very public signs that the "special relationship" has seriously frayed, the British response is unusually robust. The Americans, say officials, are ignorant about the dynamics in the south, where there is no sectarian war between Shia and Sunni, who have already been driven out, and where virtually all violence is directed against UK troops. Removing the troops, runs the argument, should lead to the end of the rounds of mortars and rockets in Basra.

The fact that the pull-out from the palace has not led to the eruption of a fresh internecine conflict between Shia militia groups has helped to strengthen the British position. Without the daily target practice on occupying forces, Basra is now relatively quiet.

The credit for the ceasefire by the Shia militias, or, as the British officials and military carefully enunciate, "the accommodation", is credited to the Iraqi General Mohan al-Furayji, sent down from Baghdad to take charge of all security forces in southern Iraq. He is answerable directly to the PM, Nouri al-Maliki.

General Mohan has become an almost talismanic figure, not least among UK officials. They see him as the strong leader who will keep a tight grip on security, allowing a graceful final departure. He told The Independent on Sunday: "There was no longer any need for the British to stay in Basra Palace. They have done a good job, but it was time for them to go. The militias know that there are no longer any foreign troops in the city, and Basra Palace is now protected by Iraqi forces. So why should they continue their attacks? If they are patriotic Iraqis they should not fire on their own army. If they do attack, then you have to ask whether they owe allegiance to their country or an external power, perhaps Iran. If that is the case then we will deal with them."

He does, though, see Britain and the US as culpable for one of the most serious sources of lawlessness in Basra – the militia-dominated police force. "It was a mistake that when the police was formed no checks were made on their background. I have full control over both the police and the army and I shall carry out very thorough checks.

"The militias have been able to exploit people who have no jobs. More money should have been put into that by the West. When one leaves a country, there are a few things one should be remembered for. Creating jobs, keeping people busy so they do not turn to violence would have been a good thing to be remembered for."

The men serving under General Mohan are gung-ho to take over from the British. Ali al-Nisiri, an officer in the fledgling Iraqi Navy is being trained by the British. "It has been good of the British to help but we can now look after our own country," he said. " We have got a government but there are still lot of foreigners here. We cannot have them involved in everything."

For Radi al-Haidari, a 36-year-old schoolteacher, the main concern is that the confrontation between the US and Iran will move to the south. "We hear the Americans are saying they want to send troops to Basra. Maybe they want to fight their war against Iran here. We see what is going on in Baghad and we don't want that here. We are tired of fighting, of people dying. All we have had is years of destruction and sadness."

But there are also many who are bitter about their treatment under the occupation. Abbas Mohammed claimed he was beaten by British troops after being arrested soon after their arrival in Basra in 2003. "They were laughing and taunting me," said the 28-year-old building worker. "I was locked up for five days and beaten. Some of my friends had the same experience. I feel angry at the British. They said they came to free us from Saddam, but they behaved badly."

Additional reporting by Hakim Jalil Ali

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