"You had a kebab in the middle of Basra? That's marvellous news, brilliant," exclaimed the colonel. "I lost 16 men on those streets last year." Five years after Britain joined the invasion of Iraq, "journalist eats kebab" should not be noteworthy. But every little helps, and given the violence of only a few months ago, it is a measure of both a remarkable turnaround and the pride and concern shown by Britain's troops.
The person who has presided over that change is Major-General Barney White-Spunner, Britain's commanding officer in southern Iraq, who is ending his term this month. How much credit is due to him is unclear, but in this instance he seems at the very least to be one of Napoleon's lucky generals.
When he arrived in February, he came to a city controlled by militant Shias. The Jaish al-Mahdi, often known as the Mahdi army but known to the acronym-loving British Army as the Jam, are the ones most readily mentioned by troops. The British, having recently suffered 13 deaths in one month, agreed to a secret "accommodation" offered by Ahmed al-Fartusi, an influential Shia, who said he could stop the attacks. Accused of being part of the problem (not least by their own boss, the head of the Army General Sir Richard Dannatt), the British pulled out of the city, releasing 120 prisoners as they did so, and returned to their base on the outskirts of town.
"Britain has made some terrible mistakes in Iraq," says Colonel Richard Iron, who runs the Army's downtown operation, "and this was one of them. As 90 per cent of the attacks were against us, we thought if we moved out we would remove the source of the problem. But actually they had been fighting us because we were the only obstacle to their total control." The result was indeed control by the Jam, responsible for ritual rape, extortion and thuggery. Curfews and no-go areas made a gross mockery of the notion of "allowing the Iraqis to run their own affairs".
So in March came the "Charge of the Knights", the routing of the Shia militias forced through by Iraq's Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, reportedly angry at what he saw as Britain's abdication of responsibility. The purge was led, rather precipitately, by the Iraqi army and supported by the Americans and, latterly, the British. The transformation is indeed remarkable. Troops could not leave their base without attracting enemy fire just a few months before. The Charge of the Knights has changed everything. While for now the British still have to travel in armed vehicles, the sense of freedom on the streets is clear. More excitable souls in the Army will tell you it's safer than Johannesburg. Women, slowly, are uncovering their heads. There is talk of soldiers replacing their helmets with berets. On my kebab expedition in the middle of town, admittedly with a substantial guard, I was assailed with people shaking my hand, thanking the British for being there. The cynic might say they do this to everyone, which is debatable, but to an anti-war churl, this didn't fit the script.
General Barney is bashful about claiming credit for himself. He is also reluctant to advertise the difficulties he faced when Maliki rushed into the charge with only minimal planning. "It came back on track very quickly and it became abundantly clear that Maliki had judged the mood in Basra exactly right, that people were fed up with Jam. Actually, I was rather proud how quickly our chaps reacted."
It suits Britain to cite the move as an example of the Iraqis taking control of their own destiny – as it was. In addition, the effect on Maliki's personal confidence and leadership stature has been substantial. Critics will say the charge was required to remedy the mistake of last year, an error that risk-averse politicians, worried about bad headlines, seem not to have discouraged.
White-Spunner has the background, and, comrades say, the skills – and even the requisite double-barrelled name – to go to the top in the British military. Educated at Eton and the University of St Andrews, he was not a notable high-flyer and had showed no military leanings as a young man. He joined the Household Cavalry not expecting to stay "but the jobs just kept getting more and more interesting". Latterly these have included leading 16 Air Assault Brigade in 2001 and, from October last year, assuming command of 3rd Division. His home, shared with his wife and three children, is in Dorset and when time allows – which it certainly doesn't at the moment – he writes, generally about the countryside or military history.
He also has the tact to go far, and says mildly it would not be "fair" to comment on things he wasn't involved with, such as the deal last autumn. "You have to look at Iraq as a continuum, and it has got us where we are, which is good. There have been all sorts of steps along the way. It's like the Today programme endlessly asking about the disbanding of the Iraqi army. I mean, how far back do you want to go?"
"Barney's a clever and very likeable guy," says one former senior soldier who has worked closely with him. "He's less a battlefield general than the sort of guy who can put together a team, more an Eisenhower than a Montgomery, maybe. He is a big man. There are no ego problems with him; he just lets people get on with what they are good at."
So what has happened to the proud, defiant Iraqi freedom fighters who we were told would never tolerate a foreign occupation? Six rockets were fired across the city as my plane approached the Army's HQ at the beginning of last week. That hardly sounds like game over.
The answer is that, under military and financial pressure, the old threat is mutating. The occasional rocket attack does persist, by hardliners. But the conditions are less conducive to insurgency. Whereas in the past the Shia faith brought with it a degree of social welfare, now many of its exponents are discredited as hoodlums.
"The people have seen what it's like and they hate it," says the general. "People want ordinary politics, not religious politics. Even in Hiyyaniya, which is a very poor area (where people, desperate for cash, would be hired by the hour to fire rockets), they bitterly resent what they were made to go through by Jam. What I think you will see is some pretty violent extremists, and notice I'm not using the term Jam, ie those people who were trying to dominate. I think you will see the extremists trying to launch attacks against the Iraqi government and the coalition."
One of his comrades expects the formation of tighter, more professional cells, perhaps using more targeted attacks and kidnapping against high-profile individuals. It is the difference between Belfast in 1972 and 1988, he says.
Isn't Iran a source of concern? Cue a display of White-Spunner diplomacy: he cites Iran's cultural and religious links with Shia Iraq, and says it is understandable that Iran should show a concern for her neighbour. "Iran has the same interests as the Iraqis do in a peaceful democratic Iraq," he tells me. He knows better than anyone the damage Iran has done, but a newspaper is no place to pick a fight, evidently.
Poverty, though, is the key. Basrawis need to be given an incentive to sustain their current loyalty to the British and to the Iraqi authorities. At the moment, this comes in cash handouts, say, to clean up the streets. But they need proper jobs, which require investment, which requires political stability. The potential is there, though. Iraq has staggering oil resources and, in Basra alone, a vast, barely used international airport and easy sea access.
"It's going to be a rich country whether you like it or not, unless we all find alternative fuel sources," says the general. "I think the security gains here are going to sustain because they're going to bring in the investment, for the oil to be exploited. Economically, Iraq cannot fail to be a key player in the Middle East. And the Iraqis are an able lot, held down until recently by a pretty brutal regime.
"The people need a stake. They need to have aspirations. We want to get a political process that will enfranchise them."
Provincial elections are due at the end of the year, an opportunity to turn out an unimpressive cadre of incumbents and to ventilate demands for some sort of Basran federation. The police and the civil service – where corruption has a strong foothold – are in need of "moving to the next level", in the British euphemism. To that end, a large number of British troops and civil servants are mentoring Iraqis in how to run a civil society. This can be an uphill task, Saddam's rule having suffocated much of a sense of both delegation and initiative. One group of squaddies reported that none of the Iraqi soldiers they were working with was of a standard to join the British Army, but the Mitting (mentoring) teams do report progress, particularly in discipline. Certainly, they show every sign of believing in what they are doing.
British troop morale seems good, despite working at the moment in 50C heat (the camp gets through nearly 400,000 litres of mineral water a week).
"It isn't doing missions so much that puts people off staying in the Army," says the general. "People actually enjoy and value this. What takes people out is the pay, the condition of the housing, all the things they have to do in the middle. The boys aren't well paid, but doing something like this is what you join the Army for."
And yet. The forces are horribly overstretched. How long will the British stay in Basra? In answering this, British politicians observe the diplomatic niceties about not overstaying their welcome, which is code for not staying longer than they have to. On the other hand, the mentoring teams worry that things might "cliffedge".
"Change needs to be psychologically ingrained, so they don't even notice us leaving," says one Mitt man.
Is there a danger of leaving too soon? The Americans wouldn't welcome that, and it won't happen if General Barney's message gets through to his bosses. "I am confident my advice will be heard. This has to be an Iraqi decision. It is now a bilateral relationship and that is a huge measure of progress. The British ministers do listen. They have to, really."
Britain's mandate from the UN runs out at the end of the year, which may change the relationship. And as Gordon Brown says, a time will come in a year or so when there will be a "fundamental change of mission", which will scale down the divisional HQ, send the battle groups elsewhere but leave behind some specialist military personnel, as well as people on the civil side, to continue to mentor the police and help to secure engineering projects. The Brits will never be everybody's favourite in Basra, but if it is getting easier for a Briton to walk down the street and have a kebab, it's an indicator that it is becoming much easier for a Basrawi to do so.
The colonel I told about the kebab was particularly pleased. He's writing to the bereaved mothers of those 16 men he lost to tell them about the progress.
1957 Barney White-Spunner born
1970 Attends Eton College
1975 Attends University of St Andrews, reading economics and history
1979 Joins the Blues and Royals
1992 Begins writing for 'The Field'
1994 Becomes editor of 'Baily's Hunting Directory'
1995 Deputy leader of the joint Chinese/British expedition that made the first crossing of the Taklamakan desert
1996 Commands the Household Cavalry Regiment, based in Windsor, making four deployments to Bosnia
1998 Becomes deputy director of defence policy at the MoD
2001 Promoted to Brigadier. Commands Nato operation to disarm Albanian factions in Macedonia
2002 Commands the Kabul multinational brigade, charged with security in Kabul following the fall of the Taliban
2003 Becomes Chief of Joint Force Operations and Chief of Staff of the national contingent in the Middle East
2004 Oversees military relief operations after Asian tsunami
2005 Promoted to Major-General and Chief of Staff at headquarters land command
2007 Assumes control of the 3rd Division
2008 Becomes General Officer commanding HQ, Multinational Division (South East)
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