General Mohan al-Furayji, the Iraqi commander in charge of security in the south of Iraq, has warned his troops they must prepare for the final battle to defeat the Shia militias terrorising Basra.
For the British force based at Basra airport, the general's strategy raises the spectre of a return to the city they left last September after a summer of incessant attacks by the gunmen.
General Mohan is determined that the armed Shia groups have to be defeated before the provincial elections in the autumn. Failure to do so, he maintains, will mean the gunmen will take over what is left of the degenerating political process, making it impossible to shift them in the near future. No date has been fixed for the drive against the militias in Basra, he said yesterday. But he also delivered an uncompromising warning to his troops: they must be ready for a decisive military push, and it will come soon.
Two militias, the Mehdi Army, led by the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Badr Brigade used to dominate Basra. There are now, however, more than a dozen groups seeking the rich pickings of the region. The Mehdi Army has split into factions, with one group rejecting the current ceasefire called by the cleric.
Meanwhile, a messianic cult, the Soldiers of Heaven, launched attacks in Basra and Nasiriya during the Shia religious ceremony of Ashura two months ago in which 70 people died and more than 100 were wounded.
British troops no longer venture into the city. But the UK has pledged to give General Mohan military support if asked, and senior government sources say that Gordon Brown's pledge to cut the number of troops here from 4,100 to 2,500 will almost certainly be postponed until at least the end of the year.
The reasons are the dependence of the Iraqis on UK troops as well as continuing attacks on the airport base. After a lull following the British withdrawal from their base at Saddam Hussein's old palace in Basra, mortar and missile rounds have continued against the British troops on a regular basis, seen as a sign of renewed confidence by the militias. Soldiers complain that they are coming under attack without being able, as in the past, to take action against the enemy in Basra city.
The British Government, however, is extremely wary about getting stuck once again in the Basra quagmire, and efforts will be made to ensure that any commitment will be short of a full-scale redeployment.
At present British troops are mainly engaged in training and mentoring their Iraqi counterparts and providing logistical support and intelligence. Some UK forces do take part in joint operations with the Iraqis, but strictly outside Basra city limits.
Asked whether he thought the British contribution will involve armour and air power in a conflict with the Shia fighters, General Mohan said "the British have promised help and I am sure they will provide it, but what exactly they do will be up to them".
Meanwhile, Iraqi preparations for confronting the militias are going ahead. At their former base at Shaiba, the 1 Scots Battlegroup is providing training in house-to-house fighting – a key ingredient in any attempt to retake Basra from the militias. The procedure is what the Americans call Mout (military operations in urban terrain) and the British, call Fish (fighting in someone's house).
According to Iraqi sources, the best time for military operations would be in the summer with Ramadan due to last almost the whole of September. The elections, originally scheduled before the end of September, are now expected to take place in October.
General Mohan was sent from Baghdad by the Iraqi government to oversee security in the south, an area which accounts for 90 per cent of state revenue, 70 per cent of oil reserves and has been described as "the lung of Iraq" by premier Nouri al-Maliki. He has been urged to wrest the region from the armed groups which have been looting oil, on an industrial scale.
Last week, the deputy prime minister, Barham Salih, called for a "very strong military presence in Basra to eradicate the militia," adding that Western forces would be involved. British forces are staying out of Basra city with the agreement of the Iraqi authorities so as not to provoke militia violence.Reuse content