State of emergency in Basra threatens British withdrawal

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In a blow to British hopes for an early pullout of troops from Basra, the Iraqi Prime Minister has declared a month-long state of emergency during a trip to Iraq's British-controlled second city, in an attempt to quell increasing violence.

Nuri al-Maliki, who has adopted a tough stance on security since taking office on 20 May, said: "We shall use an iron fist against the leaders of the gangs or those who threaten security. What is going on in this city, the city of martyrs and sacrifices?" he said. "We will not let Basra keep bleeding with the existence of these gangs while there are full security forces in it."

The Shia-dominated southern sector of Iraq, where Britain has 7,200 soldiers, has experienced mounting unrest in recent months, with violence being blamed on sectarian rivalry, militias as well as rival tribal groups.

One group has openly threatened to halt the country's oil exports. More than 100 people were killed in May, including nine British soldiers in the deadliest month for British troops since the 2003 invasion. The Defence Secretary, Des Browne, has said the number of attacks against coalition forces in southern Iraq rose to 103 in April from 36 in January.

Yesterday's announcement of a state of emergency is the first in Iraq and a sign of how serious the unrest has become in the British-controlled southeastern region, which had previously been relatively calm compared with Sunni areas of the country. In other troubled areas, including Baghdad and Ramadi, a curfew is in force.

Mr Maliki, a Shia, told about 700 tribal sheikhs, religious leaders, officials, army officers and other residents in Basra that he would ask security departments to draw up an "effective and quick plan" to improve security.

He said that the Iraqi Army would patrol the streets, instead of the police, who have been infiltrated by insurgent groups.

Britain welcomed Mr Maliki's "focus on security and his decision to visit Basra so soon after taking office" yesterday. The Foreign Office said: "This demonstrates the new Iraqi government's determination to get to grips with the situation in Basra."

Mr Browne said during a visit to Basra on 18 May that violence had reached "unacceptable" levels, but blamed it on the five months that it took to form the government of national unity.

Mr Maliki still has not appointed two key ministers, defence and the interior, undermining his security plans.

British officials stressed that the declaration of a state of emergency meant a change in the Iraqi government's policy towards Basra, not a change in the situation on the ground.

But with the first withdrawals scheduled for the summer from two provinces in the south, it seems likely that Britain's plans to pull out troops could be affected by the newly announced state of emergency.

Tony Blair has consistently linked a troop pull-out to better conditions on the ground, and the readiness of the Iraqi police and army to take over from the foreign forces.

But the bomb attacks and a helicopter crash that left nine Britons dead have underlined the deterioration in relations between the local Iraqi population and the British forces. When the helicopter crashed in Basra on 6 May, probably after being shot by a rocket-propelled grenade,Iraqis rushed into the streets to celebrate the troops' misfortune, sparking several hours of clashes as the locals hurled stones and petrol bombs at the British soldiers.

Colonel David Cullen, the chief of staff at the coalition's military headquarters in Basra, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that security in the city had "slipped" in relation to other provinces under British responsibility. He acknowledged there had been "a number of difficult months" recently when local political authorities had sought to "not engage with us".

"The south is much larger than Basra, there are four provinces here, there is peace, stability, developing prosperity and increasing sovereignty in the other three provinces," he said.

"Basra has slipped behind almost certainly as a result of that disengagement."

n A sports reporter for the state-run al-Iraqiya television was gunned down yesterday in a drive-by shooting near his home in south-west Baghdad, police said. Ali Jaafar, 25, was killed as he left his house.

Changing views of a beleaguered city

April 2003: Tony Blair at a press conference with President George Bush

"I think anyone who has seen the joy on the faces of people in Basra, as they realise that the regime that they detest is finally collapsing, knows... this was indeed a war of liberation and not of conquest."

December 2003: Tony Blair on the capture of Saddam Hussein

"The celebrations on the streets of Baghdad, Basra and all over Iraq show once and for all how delighted the Iraqi people are that Saddam's rule is now history."

July 2004: Captain Richard Sernberg, Cheshire Regiment, in Basra

"The situation is very different from the way it was in Northern Ireland or the Balkans. There is nowhere where we feel direct hostility towards us. In one of the poorer areas, stones get thrown at the vehicles but it is just kids."

July 2004: Hussain Abid, whose two-year-old son was injured in a Basra bomb attack

"I am angry the British came here, near civilian homes. I want the government to ask the British to move out of the city. We are in danger here. We have been hit 10 or 11 times in one month."

September 2005: Tony Blair 's party conference speech

"Yes, several hundred people stoned British troops in Basra. Yes, several thousand run the terrorist insurgency around Baghdad and, yes, as a result of the fighting, innocent people tragically die. But 8.5 million Iraqis showed which future they wanted when they voted in January's elections."

December 2005: Tony Blair to British troops in Basra

"I know how dangerous it is sometimes, because... we have lost two colleagues here. But... when you look back on this time, I think and hope you can feel very proud of what you have done."

Yesterday: Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, declaring a state of emergency in Basra

"We shall use an iron fist against the leaders of the gangs or those who threaten security."