Basra Breakdown; the Brits Thought They Knew Counterinsurgency Better. What Went Wrong?
Byline: Joshua Hammer (With Stryker McGuire in Basra and Michael Hastings in New York)
Cradling a semiautomatic weapon in the front seat of an armored Land Rover, Steve, a British police adviser, scans the crumbling streets of central Basra on a steamy mid-May afternoon. Graffiti scrawled in English on the walls of dun-brown buildings bear warnings to British troops: "The Mahdi Army will kill and destroy you," reads one message. Steve (British government rules forbid revealing his full name) points across a fetid canal to the old State Building, which serves as a British base. In recent months militiamen have attacked the compound repeatedly with rocket-propelled grenades. They've also laid EFPs--explosive-formed projectiles, or shaped charges--on nearby roads to ambush armored patrols. "The attacks take place in the evenings mostly," says Steve with a shrug, "so we'll probably be all right."
For the first two and a half years after British troops rolled into Basra in March 2003, Iraq's second-largest city provided a textbook case of Occupation Lite. As Baghdad turned into a cauldron of suicide attacks, drive-by shootings, roadside bombs and angry crowds, predominantly Shia Basra remained a gentler place. British officers contrasted their apparently successful methods to win the "hearts and minds" of wary Iraqis--speaking a few words of Arabic, wearing berets instead of helmets, removing their sunglasses when talking to locals, driving in open vehicles with their weapons tucked out of sight--with sometimes heavy-handed American tactics. British Brig. Nigel Aylwin-Foster attracted attention last year when he criticized American operations in Iraq, writing that unlike the British, U.S. troops were too inclined to carry out "offensive operations" against suspected insurgents and showed "cultural insensitivity" amounting to "institutional racism."
But now the British campaign isn't looking very effective, either. Militia groups have stepped up a campaign of guerrilla warfare against British troops: 30 roadside bomb attacks since January have killed 13 soldiers. Death squads, some apparently affiliated with the Iraqi police, carry out daily killings in Basra. According to the local independent daily Al-Zaman, Shia-on-Shia murders are taking place at the rate of one per hour. (British sources dispute that, saying the city has averaged about 100 murders a month.) Last week Basra's police chief Gen. Hassan al-Suadi narrowly escaped assassination when a roadside bomb hit his convoy as he was heading to work.
Escalating conflict in the south may be related to a decline in British troop strength. Prime Minister Tony Blair, facing political pressure over an unpopular war, has steadily reduced the number of British soldiers in Iraq from 30,000 three years ago to roughly 10,000 today. The withdrawals have prompted U.S. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the highest-ranking military commander in Iraq, to criticize his British colleagues. "It looks like you're in this for yourselves," he's been complaining to British officers recently. One of those Brits told NEWSWEEK he was similarly frustrated. Casey "is absolutely right," said the officer, who wanted to remain anonymous because he did not want his name attached to public disapproval of Blair.
This month marks a low point in the three-year occupation. On the afternoon of May 6, a British military Lynx helicopter on patrol over Basra was knocked from the sky, possibly by a shoulder-fired rocket. …