The British Leave Basra – and Iraq

The British Leave Basra – and Iraq

Simon Henderson Winter 2007

The British Army is leaving Iraq. It has already left Basra, the country’s second largest city. It looks as though it will be leaving Basra province and, therefore, Iraq itself, sometime in 2008. The word “withdrawal” is not being mentioned in official statements. Rather, officials are calling it a “transfer” of responsibility to Iraqi forces, a “transition,” or a “reduction” in numbers. Historians will almost certainly regard it as a “retreat.”

The last time in history that British troops had been in Basra was in late 1914, just after the start of World War I, when British soldiers first seized the nearby Fao peninsula, and then the city itself. In 1916, British forces decided to push up the River Tigris, but were stopped at Kut by Khalil Pasha’s Turkish forces, and were forced to surrender after 140 days.

While the defeat sustained at Kut was a black eye for the British military, the scheduled retreat from Iraq is an equally embarrassing loss. In Kut, the British forces were outnumbered in battle. In Basra, Britain has lost a battle of will.

Brown: Not Tony Blair

It is not clear whether new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has a sense of history beyond his own place in it. Indeed, Brown sees Iraq, in general, and Basra, in particular, as ideal opportunities to demonstrate to Britons how different he is from his predecessor and longtime Labor Party rival Tony Blair.

Basra has also given Brown an opportunity to distance the U.K. from the administration of President George W. Bush, a hated figure for many of Brown’s Labor supporters. Brown, however, is not opposed to British troops remaining in Afghanistan with American servicemen, despite relatively high casualty figures and no end to the peacekeeping mission in sight. Explaining Brown’s bi-polar policy has required some fancy footwork.

Brown’s strategy of isolating the Bush administration appears to have backfired. In cooling ties with Washington, he has created opportunities for new French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to draw closer to Bush. It can be argued, in fact, that Brown has isolated himself.

British Troops in Iraq

In March and April 2003, during the allied invasion of Iraq, there were as many as 46,000 British military personnel in the country. Within a couple of months it fell to 18,000, and reached 8,600 by May 2004. By May of 2007, the numbers stood at 5,500. The numbers will fall to 4,500 by the end of 2007 and fall again to 2,500 by Spring 2008.

The casualty lists tell their own story. In 2003, 53 British soldiers died in Iraq. In 2004, 2005, and 2006, annual British fatalities were in the 20s. As of October 2007, the British Ministry of Defense website listed the number of British soldiers killed in Iraq as 44. While these figures were far from devastating, there has been significant public and political pressure to withdraw.

This pressure was combined with a sense that the mission in Iraq was futile. British military personnel readily acknowledged this, to the consternation of senior commanders, even though they generally agreed with it. The blame game ended with the finger pointed at the United States.

Immediately following the invasion, British officials were keen to contrast the more subtle British tactics with those of their clumsy American cousins. Donning full body armor and helmets was seen as needlessly antagonizing the local Iraqis. Wearing sunglasses so Iraqis could not see the soldier’s eyes was another problem. (Apart from the importance of establishing rapport through eye contact, the American practice of wearing dark lenses also led to the Iraqi street rumor that U.S. soldiers could see through the clothes of Iraqi women.)

Yet, beginning in 2006, British forces have been forced to adopt American military tactics and garb, largely due to a grievous error in judgment. Indeed, the British military had allowed several armed Iraqi groups to establish headquarters in Basra and operate freely.

As a result, Basra politics became dominated by armed groups. Security deteriorated, protection rackets thrived, while neighboring Iran, just across the Shatt al-Arab waterway, increasingly played games of influence.

U.S. Troops Migrating South?

Britain always knew that Iran could wreak havoc in southern Iraq. The British foreign secretary at the time of the invasion, Jack Straw, became known as “Ayatollah Straw” because of the frequency of his visits to Tehran. The benefits derived from those visits were far from clear. Perhaps London believed that these visits would immunize British troops from Iran’s violent responses to Western pressures for Tehran’s support of terrorism and its tenacious refusal to renounce its nuclear ambitions.

Iranian influence in Basra now is hard to quantify. It is subtle but pervasive. Tehran likely realizes that if its actions are too overt, either more British troops will return, or U.S. troops will intervene. The latter action has already been hinted as a prospect. Neither option would be welcomed by Iran, for fear of losing its stronghold on Iraq’s Shi’ite south.

American concern appears to be based less on Basra, which remains relatively stable by Iraqi standards, and more on the security of the route south to Kuwait, about 50 miles distant. Supplies brought in by air account for a mere 10 percent of what U.S. forces need. The other 90 percent arrives by road, after having arrived by sea to Kuwait. The route is also the only viable potential line for the military withdrawal proposed by numerous Democratic hopefuls vying for the 2008 presidential nomination.


The British forces, based at Basra airport a few miles outside the city, currently perform an “overwatch” role. They train and mentor Iraqi forces, and protect the border and supply routes. They also have the capability to “support the Iraqis directly if so requested,” but this has yet to occur. The British army seems to have decided to let events in Basra take their course.

As it is, Basra airport is an exposed position, difficult to defend from rocket and mortar fire. Its vulnerability was illustrated on November 1 when several mortar bombs disrupted a soccer match. The British Defense Ministry website reported the score (3-1), but made no mention of whether action was taken against the attackers.

In September, the Defense Ministry was irritated by a London Sunday Times report that British troops would soon be repositioned in Kuwait for the “overwatch” role. Both the military and the Emir of Kuwait vociferously denied the report. However, it appears that the repositioning is inevitable. During a visit to Basra airport at the end of October, British Defense Minister Des Browne said, “around 500 logistics and support personnel will be based outside Iraq elsewhere in the region.” He was almost certainly referring to Kuwait.

By spring 2008, even the definition of “overwatch” will change. During this second stage, Defense Secretary Browne said British troops would have “a more limited re-intervention capacity.” The main focus will be on training and mentoring, he said. The status of 2,500 troops will again be considered.

Judging Brown

Is there any long-term thinking in Prime Minister Brown’s approach? He has always been a shrewd politician with a keen eye for creating political leverage. His visit to Iraq and his announcement of force reductions came just before the Labor Party annual policy conference. This was Brown’s first conference as prime minister and he performed well. But, Brown’s Iraq actions raise questions about how he will handle other Middle East challenges.

On the Middle East peace process, Brown appears to be encouraging British economic investment in the Palestinian territories. But since the appointment of Tony Blair as international peace envoy, against Brown’s wishes, any particular efforts might seem to benefit Blair rather than Brown. Accordingly, Brown will almost certainly keep his distance.

Iran is Brown’s biggest challenge. For now, the prime minister’s policies appear to be curiously close to Bush’s; the British leader has not ruled out the use of force if Iran develops a nuclear weapon. But public opinion in Britain is against that option, especially if it involves British collaboration with the U.S. At the very least, the U.S. would look to Britain to allow the use of the Indian Ocean airfield on the island of Diego Garcia for any strike force.

Gordon Brown is struggling mightily to craft policies that differ from Blair, distance himself from the United States to garner popular support, and maintain stability in a region that is full of pitfalls. Iraq is the immediate challenge, but Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict are not far behind.

Simon Henderson is the Baker fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the director of its Gulf and Energy Program.