Bernard Jenkin: We're making headway in Iraq and need to stay there

The only real frustration is that nobody seems to appreciate what is being achieved

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Good news from Iraq has been in short supply, but the House of Commons Defence Committee recently returned from Basra considerably cheered. The logic now is that the UK should maintain a substantial force in Basra for some time yet.

This may not be what the Prime Minister wants to hear, but as he returns from Iraq, he should come to the same conclusion. We should plan to stay to build a positive military footprint of our own in part of what will become one of the richest and most powerful countries in the Gulf region. A pre-election rush for the exit will underline how the UK lacks political willpower and is deficient in the necessary military capacity to exploit recent success. Having taken a fair proportion of the effort, including battle casualties, why hand all the upside to the Americans?

We had expected to find, as last year, a military force almost wholly preoccupied with its own protection and incapable of contributing much strategically. Throughout the last 18 months, while General Petraeus changed the US doctrine of operations from conventional warfare to counter insurgency, and began to win consent on the streets in Baghdad and Anbar province, UK forces in the south seemed to be in retreat. We had become locked down in our bases, enduring regular rocket attacks, only able to operate in heavily-armoured convoys, subject to mines and roadside bombs.

In the autumn of last year, we effectively handed Basra city to the Iranian-backed Shia militias. The police were corrupt, the local government was seen as complicit, and the prospects for stability were remote. Worst of all, the casualties we suffered seemed pointless.

On 25 March this year, Prime Minister Maliki ordered his southern security chief, General Mohan, to lead an Iraqi army offensive in Basra to clear out the Shia militias: Operation Charge of the Knights. The local 14th Division under General Mohan faltered at first, the enemy gained confidence, and Mr Maliki ordered in the Iraqi 1st Division from Baghdad as reinforcement.

Whereas British policy initially prevented Military Transition Teams (MiTTs) from deploying on operations with the 14th Division, the US Marines mentoring the 1st Division were embedded with the Iraqi military and appeared on the streets of Basra as participants in the battle, actively advising on planning and tactics as well as providing helicopter lift and air cover.

As well as achieving victory, the Iraqi army has made a quantum leap in self-confidence and respect. But there was another equally dramatic development.

The Shia militias' propaganda and religious rallies had been about ridding Iraq of the foreign invader, so there was nervousness that a visible coalition presence would undermine public support for Iraqi forces. However, instead of behaving like Iraqi patriots, Basrawis saw the militias shooting and killing Iraqi soldiers, whom the Americans were seeking to help and protect. This created sufficient confidence for British forces to deploy back on to the streets of Basra for the first time since October last year.

The Americans and the British are now welcomed as the peacemakers we really are, both by the population and the Iraqi army. This builds on a deep historical respect for the British in Basra, which stretches back to our role there from before the First World War. Far from being beleaguered, our 4,000 troops have now deployed 16 MiTTs to mentor and train the Iraqi security forces all over southern Iraq.

A British acting Brigadier, Col Richard Iron, unusually committed to his operational tour for a year, is mentoring Iraqi 10th division HQ, which commands all the Iraqi security forces in Basra province, under General Mohammed. He now has responsibility for the south.

Similarly, the Royal Navy is overseeing the reformation of the entire Iraqi Navy. This is a transformation. The only real frustration is that nobody back home seems to appreciate what is being achieved.

Our armed forces are clearly planning to stay long-term to continue training the Iraqis. Large sums of taxpayers' money are being invested in hardened accommodation. Basra airport itself is being returned to civilian control, but there is no reason why British armed forces should not be stationed there indefinitely, as in Cyprus.

The Prime Minister would prefer to be out of Iraq as soon as possible, so voters will forget it. Sadly, the defence chiefs seem to share his aim. They are in despair about overstretch and the financial crisis which grips the MoD. It will be ironic if we starve success in Iraq only to reinforce what may turn out to be failure elsewhere. And perhaps the defence chiefs should be arguing publicly for more money, instead of appearing to argue for reducing necessary commitments.

Bernard Jenkin is MP for North Essex and a member of the House of Commons Defence Committee.

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