The Brits' Different View of Iraq

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In a briefing for a small group of reporters today in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, a British officer gave a very different perspective on the situation in Iraq and the role of the Iranians than U.S. audiences are hearing. Two of the four provinces in the south have already been handed over to Iraqi control, and one more, Maysan province, may be turned over within the next two months. When insurgent attacks against British forces in Al Amarah reached an unacceptable level last year, the Brits simply moved out of town — and took up positions near the Iranian border. When violence between two militias groups broke out in that city last fall, it was the Iraqis themselves who went into the area, and brokered a cease-fire, which is still holding.

As for the anxious U.S. warnings of Iranian support for the insurgency in Iraq, a British officer was not so sure. "We have no hard evidence that the Iranians are directly involved in the attacks against coalition forces here. We have some suspicions, but so far we have found no direct proof," the officer said. There is also no evidence of any al-Qaeda presence in the majority Shi'a south. And when an al-Qaeda leader escaped from detention in Afghanistan last year, and fled to southern Iraq, the locals tipped off coalition authorities, who killed him while attempting to recapture him.

The British, who are in command in the region, also have a slightly different take on the role of the militias in the area, who they say are generally not responsible for most of the attacks against coalition forces. "It is rogue elements inside the militias that are causing most of the problems," explained Major Chris Ormond-King, a British Army spokesman. "The militias as whole are not inherently a problem. In fact in some neighborhoods they help control crime, and need to be included in part of the political solution."

Ormond-King says the death rate has declined in Basra, Iraq's second largest city, with a population of some 1.5 million; in the past six months, the provision of electricity has increased to up to 18 hours a day; and there are signs of a nascent economy (part of the issue is that while the coalition is helping the Iraqi government produce four times more electrical power than during Saddam Hussein's reign, the economy is demanding six times as much power).

It was unclear if Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in Basra on his second trip to Iraq, was getting the same message in his closed-door meetings with U.S. and coalition commanders, including U.S. Army General George Casey and British Major General Jonathan Shaw, the senor officer in the region. The British government has indicated that it is likely to start withdrawing its contingent of some 7,000 troops in Iraq later this year.