6 October 2007
It must be ironic to anyone who stands firm on the belief that US and British troops in Iraq serve an important stabilizing role that Basra has become peaceful since British peacekeepers withdrew from the heart of the city. Now it seems there may be more of that to come as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown prepares to further scale down the UK’s commitment to the US occupation of Iraq.
The 5,000 British troops in Basra are now concentrated at the city’s airport from where their commanders say they are in a position to intervene if needed in support of Iraqi forces in southern Iraq. The main residual task of the UK soldiers is to continue training the Iraqi Security Forces.
One reason that peace has come to Basra, so that for the first time its citizens feel safe enough to stroll beside the Shatt-al-Arab in the early evening, is that by abandoning their position in one of Saddam’s palaces, the British have removed a major target for militants. The people of Basra therefore neither have to endure a free-fire zone in the heart of their city nor live carefully to the constant beat of explosions.
This is not of course to say that Basra is now completely at peace. Three rival Shiite factions (the Mehdi Army of Moqtada Sadr; the Badr Brigade of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, whose armed Badr wing is believed to have gained control of a large part of the police force; and the less significant Fadhila party) are all battling for control of the city. At the moment however, the activities of these militants are largely focused on each other rather than ordinary civilians. Last week’s car-bomb attack on a police station, which killed three and wounded at least 20, was uncharacteristic of local militant violence; it is suspected to have been the work of an Al-Qaeda cell.
With the British troops effectively gone and unlikely to interfere again, it is time that Iraqis in the south looked to a political solution. The US-led Coalition’s failures have proved that there is no military solution to the violence the invasion unleashed in Iraq. Washington’s experience is equally valid for Iraqi factions who now imagine they can fight their way to peace. Violence begets simply more violence; only talking brings peace. Those who want power will only achieve it through negotiation and compromise. No single faction will be able to shoot its way into control.
It therefore seems critical at this moment when the British have been winkled out of the center of Basra that the rival militias should be using the aftermath of the victory to find common ground and talk peace. After all, they shared their detestation of the British presence in the Basra Palace. Why can they not now be sharing their common ambition for political independence free of outside interference? With the British troops gone, peace is now up to the Shiite factions.
The message from the evening strollers on the riverfront streets is that what Iraq needs for peace is for the occupiers to get out.