x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Return of UK forces in doubt

British forces are still waiting for Iraq's parliament to approve their return of naval patrols and the training of police by military units.

Although welcomed in the early stages of the invasion, British forces were later blamed for allowing Shiite militias to gain control in Basra.
Although welcomed in the early stages of the invasion, British forces were later blamed for allowing Shiite militias to gain control in Basra.

BAGHDAD // There are growing doubts that British military units will be allowed to return to train the Iraqi police and navy in Basra, after being forced to quietly slip out of the country when the their legal agreement with Baghdad expired this summer. A team from the Royal Navy was pulled out of southern Iraq on May 31 and has since been waiting in Kuwait for permission to return and resume its training role.

Legislation covering the presence of UK forces was originally expected to be ratified by the Iraqi national parliament before it went into a long summer recess. The passage stalled however, with too few MPs voting in favour of extending the British mandate. While British officials say they are optimistic that Iraq's parliament will eventually approve the agreement, Iraqi MPs are not lining up to endorse it, according to Dhafer al Ani, a member of the parliament's security and defence committee.

"We believe that if it was really urgent and necessary for national security that the agreement be signed, then the government would be able to sign a temporary memorandum," he said. The fact no such stopgap arrangement has been made, he said, gave MPs the impression the Baghdad-London deal was not essential. Such a view was apparently endorsed by the British foreign secretary, David Miliband, who, according to The Times newspaper, wrote in a letter to another UK politician that the withdrawal of British ships and naval personnel would "not detrimentally affect the immediate security situation in Iraq".

Mr al Ani, of the Iraqi Accord Front, also warned that ahead of national elections, due to take place in January, few Iraqi political parties would want to associate themselves with prolonging a foreign occupation. "We're almost in election season and all parties will want to promote their nationalist credentials and most of them will reject the agreement because they know the people of Basra do not favour the presence of British troops in the city or the British navy on the water."

In the immediate aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion, British forces earned a generally favourable reputation in Basra and surrounding areas, where they were seen as more moderate, culturally sensitive and less trigger-happy than their American allies stationed further north. By 2007 however, Basra was largely under the control of Shiite militias which enforced an increasingly hardline theocratic rule on the traditionally tolerant and diverse city. University staff were assassinated, non-Muslim women were forced to wear Islamic headscarves and shops selling alcohol were smashed. Members of Basra's minority Sunni and Christian minorities fled.

Many ordinary Iraqis, and the US military, complained that the British had effectively conceded the oil-rich city to militants, rather than take them on in a direct confrontation. In the spring of 2008 the Iraqi army, backed by the US military, began an operation to seize control of Basra back from the militias. After days of sometimes intense street fighting, the militants were forced off the streets and some sense of normality was restored.

Britain's main military contingent left Basra province in April this year, leaving behind small units helping to train the Iraqi police and the country's fledgling navy. With Iraq's current refusal to ratify the joint forces agreement, Britain had to withdraw the trainers and two ships from Iraqi waters. The ships, which were protecting Iraq's offshore oil platforms, have since been replaced by US vessels.

The Sadrist movement, led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr, a staunch nationalist, has played an instrumental role in blocking the legislation in parliament, helped by the fact few Iraqi MPs bothered to turn out in support of the deal, a measure of the general indifference to Britain's ongoing role in Iraq. While many Iraqis remain wary of a large-scale pullout by US forces, the British have long been seen as irrelevant. Iraqi government negotiations with Washington were tough but they were concluded and approved before the Americans' legal mandate expired. No such effort was made in Iraq's dealings with London, a slight against the old colonial power.

"We are against anything that will continue the British occupation or give them any control over Iraqi oil exports or any other influence over the national economy," said Ali al Mayali, a Sadrist MP. "Renewing any convention that gives the British permission to keep their military forces here is a humiliation to Iraq." The Sadrists would lobby other blocs to back them when parliament resumes on September 20 after the summer recess, he said.

Despite the failure of the agreement to be passed, some Iraqi politicians still expect it will eventually win approval when parliament returns. "Most of the political blocs have no reservations about the convention with the British," said Sami al Askari, an MP close to the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki. "There is a broad agreement that Iraq does not have sufficient naval force to protect our ports and waterways and the convention includes the participation of four British ships to help defend our territorial waters, which is important for Iraqi oil exports.

"I don't think the convention will be blocked again in the next parliament." David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, has said Iraqi opposition to the continued presence of the Royal Navy was limited to a "very small number" of MPs but admitted that it remained unclear whether the agreement would ever be approved. "That said, we fully respect Iraq's democratic processes and cannot say with certainty now whether the Council of Representatives will vote the agreement through or not," he wrote in a letter to William Hague, a British MP with the opposition Tory party.

Since the invasion, 179 British troops have died in Iraq. nlatif@thenational.ae