Overwatch? Another Govt Uturn

Clueless Govt, or essential move? Fighting on two fronts continues.....

British troops back in Basra 'no-go' areas
By Damien McElroy in Basra
Last Updated: 12:56PM BST 20/05/2008
British soldiers have re-established a permanent presence in the city of Basra, patrolling with Iraqi forces in “no-go” areas they were driven from months ago by Shia militants.

Commanders say the joint operations have, in a matter of weeks, brought a measure of normality to a city that had fallen under the sway of powerful criminal gangs and the Iranian-backed fighters.

But the patrols represent a reverse in policy by British forces, which retreated last year from Basra under a barrage of fire that pushed the UK’s casualty rate temporarily above the Americans.

A botched attempt in March by Iraqi soldiers to take control of Basra pressed the British back to the city centre, following their withdrawal to Basra Airbase in December.

The British military is now operating from a forward base at the Shatt al-Arab Hotel.

Officers hardened by the demands of foot patrols in Northern Ireland are once again leading raw Iraqi recruits past shops and hairdressing salons where posters proclaim loyalty to Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric whose Mahdi army led attacks on the British.

On a patrol which was attended by The Daily Telegraph, a platoon of Rhine Co 1 Scots alternated with Iraqi soldiers in the notorious Jumhuriyah neighbourhood, formerly a no-go zone for British troops in the heart of Basra.

Hesitant cheers of “welcome” and “peace” greeted the patrol but the reception was mixed with many more blank stares.

Even so the night operation represented a significant turn of events. Commanders handed over responsibility for Basra’s security in December, insisting that local forces were capable of taking charge.

“There’s an opportunity now that didn’t exist before and we’ve had to adjust ourselves quickly and we did,” said Major Tom Perkins, Rhine Co commander. “I’ve had Iraqis come up to me and say this is just like 2003 but please get it right this time.”

“When we walk these streets at night, where nobody has done that before, it sends a message we are not afraid,” said Maj Perkins said.

“We’ve got to consolidate the Iraqi army position and build confidence we can do it.”

Over the next month, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (ScotsDG) will replace the soldiers on the ground in Basra, and roughly double the deployment in the city.

The ScotsDG’s Lieutenant Jamie Irwin said the new stance has revitalised the sense among soldiers that being sent to Iraq was worthwhile.

“When we were down to come out here people would say 'Iraq, why are going out there, you’ll just be stuck on a base,” he said.

“Now we’re firmly back in the city, living and working with the Iraqis, it’s all very encouraging. Under the concept we’ve got now, we’ll be here for a very long time.”

But Mahdi army commanders have not surrendered. Rather they have gone to ground or fled to Iran.

The duration of the revitalised British mission depends on the attitude of Iran, which brokered the deal between Sadr and the Iraqi government allowing its troops into the city.

Trade in the markets is already reviving. But while one shopkeeper offered whisky, religious enforcers have not been banished.

A wedding boutique owner quickly draped shawls over the bare shoulders of his mannequins after be warned he was violating Islamic rules on modesty.

“We are really fighting Iran,” said an Iraqi colonel. “We can capture many insurgents but it is possible the militia leaders will come back if they have the support across the border.”

After five years in which the British “soft-hat” approach slid from acclaim to opprobrium, none of the soldiers underestimates the scale of the challenge.

Basra’s citizens are wary, warning jobs must soak up the army of unemployed youth.

“Jobs,” said shopkeeper, Moqtada Saddam, 19. “If anyone can give us jobs, we won’t fight him.

“Yes, the British let us down but by coming back they have raised hope here that it can be good in the long-run.”

Anas Mohammad, who has owned the Hamdan restaurant in Basra since 1954, said he wanted to see the British back in his city.

“When the Army came here in 2003 my restaurant was very popular with the troops. But I got many threats and I had to tell the soldiers to stop coming here.

"I feared there would be a big bomb that would kill everybody.”

“For me to see British people in the streets of Basra means times have a chance of becoming good.

“I do not blame the situation in the last years on Britain. They could not fight the militias without Iraqi help but now there are police and army everywhere and the British are helping them. With God’s help things will become better.”
Well the Scots Dogs will be feeling a tad naked without their Chally 2s, if they're taking over from 1 SCOTS. Best of luck to the lads.

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