2 Rifles at Basra Palace in early 2007
William Rigby and his identical twin brother John were in 4 Rifles. On their 23rd birthday, John was up in the hatch of a Bulldog when a bomb detonated and a piece of shrapnel struck his head, mortally wounding him. William was by John’s side when he passed, and accompanied his brother home. The Regiment gave William the choice to stay home or return to Basra. When he elected to return to see the mission through, William’s personal strength added fiber to the Battle Group. I’d heard soldiers—including senior officers—mention his name with admiration.
On October 8, I was eating lunch with some British soldiers in Basra. I didn’t know any of them, but could tell they were veterans by their eyes and the way they talked. They were quiet, professional, and exceptionally polite. Sitting in front of me was one young soldier who in particular radiated a special kind of character. I didn’t know his name at the time, but later learned he was William Rigby. When I asked William how his parents were, he said, simply, “fine.” But when he learned I am a writer, he began talking. He said he wanted to make sure that I took the time to report what was happening in Basra.
Red marks the spot: the dots show mortar attacks at the Palace for a single day.
Rigby wants to win this war. Having also fought in Afghanistan—where the fight is just getting started—he’s not under any illusion. Although Rigby thinks that a precipitous withdrawal from Basra would be a mistake, he also thinks the decision to pull out of the Palace was wise because the presence of British troops and the re-supply convoys only provoked the local population.
Those paying attention to the war awakened to the reality that Basra had become a battleground. 30mm cannons were regularly belching fire and metal downtown. Rockets and mortars arced through the night while green and orange tracers snapped toward targets, sometimes seeming to make a long slow trip away before striking an object and making a sharp noise in the distance. At nighttime, when tracers fly through dark windows, the burning bullets sometimes ricochet around the room before falling to the floor, casting an eerie, flickering glow on the night vision before the phosphorous burns out.
By British accounts, about 90% of the attacks in Basra were directed against the British. Unlike Diyala Province and other places north, there was no civil war in Basra. Instead, domestic power struggles among tribes, militias and criminal organizations vying for power, all of which, at the end of the day, are best understood as Iraqi problems to be solved by Iraqis.
Earlier this year, the British soldiers clearly realized that the best thing they could do for Basra was to remove themselves from the fray. Basra was a veritable Hatfield-and-McCoy situation; dysfunctionally functioning.
Basra is a place that will never approach its human potential under the current societal architecture. But that’s not something an outside force is likely to change. It’s their world: they will have to manage the relative freedom that outside forces have given them access to.
In Basra, it was increasingly clear that the smart thing to do was leave the house and let the Iraqis sort out their own domestic issues.
By taking steps back, the Brits can help the Iraqi Police and Army stand up, and provide them with critical support without having to personally arbitrate. Continuing to position themselves as the convenient target only increases stress on the local population while at the same time allowing the principals to postpone the time for reckoning and reconciliation.
Ironically, the people of Basra have nothing against the Brits, per se, no more than, say, a fighting husband and wife would have against the hapless cop who answered their domestic disturbance call. Of course, that’s not much comfort to the cop who finds himself on the floor in a pool of his own blood.
Enter a Geo-Political conundrum.
If the British were of a shaky-kneed stock, suspicions about them running from an important fight might warrant something other than an eye-roll. Informed persons realize that the British forces were wise to refocus on training the Iraqi Police and Army, and begin working on the larger political struggles that have more strategic consequence.
But the decision to pull back did not happen in the vacuum of Basra. The larger conundrum involved the Coalition in Iraq. The British are the single partner whose defection could seriously undermine the Coalition in the eyes of the world media, especially when al Qaeda’s media wing got busy spinning that news. Partners have come and gone, and most people have little idea which partners have pulled stakes, folded tents and trudged home. Nor do most people have an idea of who the new partners are. The United Kingdom is the only Coalition partner with strategic influence over American and world public opinion.
Many British seem oddly ignorant of the influence they exert over the many Americans who tend to view the UK like a brother-nation whose advice they are free to accept, argue with or disregard, anything except ignore it out of hand. Britain is the one country whose words seem to resonate in the US. Perhaps this respect is due more to the credibility of the British character, or maybe it is our shared history and common values, and perhaps it is also because America does not naturally doubt Britain’s motivations. Britain is the one country that can call the emperor naked, flagrantly say we are wrong, and not suffer animosity.
British officers openly talked with me about the broader repercussions of the decision to pull out of the small outpost known as “Basra Palace.” They could stay there forever, taking and inflicting casualties, but the longer they stayed, the more their capacity to impact larger and more important developments would be eroded by the friction of combat.
Iraqi Police in Basra seem far more corrupt than those in, say, Mosul, which is about the same size. I’ve spent about six months in Mosul and talked with many key people. I know of not a single event of Iraqi Police or Army attacking our folks in Mosul. [This changed last week when we learned that an Iraqi soldier may have killed 2 US soldiers on December 26th.] In fact, our folks in Mosul tend to hold their Iraqi Army and Police counterparts in good regard, and with some measure of respect. The Iraqi Police and Army in Mosul have been fashioned into a real fighting force with a surprising reservoir of trust with American forces. The same cannot be said for many police in Baghdad, where cops have often been involved in attacks against our soldiers. There are no doubt many good cops in Baghdad, but there certainly are a lot of bad ones, many of whom probably should be in prison. In a similar fashion, rogue elements in the Basra police have been a huge part of the violence against both the British and Iraqis. So much so that the Baghdad government took about 3,000 Basra police, shipped them elsewhere in Iraq, and replaced their commander with a more trusted figure named General Mohan. The British credit Mohan with brokering a JAM cease-fire as a sign of goodwill before the British finally pulled out of Basra Palace on 02 September 2007.
Since General Mohan assumed control, Basra police report a 70% drop in crime. Statistics are always suspect, but the British agree that there has been a precipitous decrease in crime. I witnessed this change in atmosphere and reported the extent of the calm, countering mainstream media reports that falsely claimed Basra had descended into chaos in the wake of the pullback.
There was, however, a suicide car bomb in late September. Car bombs are rare in Basra, and suicide attacks nearly unheard-of, so this could be read as an indication of an outside influence such as al Qaeda, which is remarkably unwelcome in Basra. Days later, a Sunni mosque in Basra was attacked, again by a suicide bomber. But if the goal of those isolated attacks was to kindle civil war in Basra, they failed.
At the current rate, Iraq might end up being an ally in the fight against al Qaeda; large numbers of Iraqis have learned to hate al Qaeda with as much ferocity as Americans hate al Qaeda. The surest thing AQI can do to assure its own demise in Iraq is to continue wholesale murder.
By the time I arrived on my latest trip to Basra on 26 September, the “Honor Agreement” was holding fast. So much so that in September—when the mainstream media was consistently reporting that the place was “in chaos”—the violence in Basra had actually fallen off the screen. Mortar and rocket attacks still occurred, but infrequently and with no military relevance. There was a brief attack at the Basra Airport on 8 October during which I had to lie flat for just a few minutes, and a few other minor attacks where I had to lie down, but this is in sharp contrast to the attacks earlier this year where it was common to lie flat more than a half-dozen times per day, every day.
One mitigating factor the “honor agreement” could not impact was the oppressive heat that accounted for casualties that do not show up in combat statistics. During summer, Basra is hotter than most of Iraq, and temperatures inside the armored vehicles often rose to about 70°C. During one 12-hour mission, the Brits took only 4 wounded to enemy action but another 18 fell to the heat. Some heat casualties are life-threatening, resulting in evacuation to the UK without returning to the unit.
British and American officers frequently lament that Iraq has no reservoir of capable, strong leaders. They talk about the “reverse Darwinism” where the strong were killed or exiled. If the violence continues to decline, more can return. Former refugees already are streaming home.
Perhaps more promising for the long-term are the junior Iraqi leaders, still mostly in their twenties, who are being identified and mentored by US Army and Marines, and by British forces. It will be years before they can return serious dividends, but this is an unseen face of progress that does not translate well into news.