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British tout pullback from Basra as a model for U.S.

December 14, 2007|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — With Britain poised to hand control of vital Basra province to the Iraqi government Sunday, U.S. and British military officials are at odds over whether the move provides a model for establishing stability elsewhere in Iraq.

Senior officers in the British military, which has begun a withdrawal that will drop Britain's troop level from 7,000 to 2,500 by spring, have argued that the pullback from central Basra city in September has put pressure on rival Shiite Muslim factions to reconcile, dramatically reducing violence in Iraq's second-largest city.

But senior U.S. commanders said they remained skeptical of British claims that the move has been a success that can be replicated elsewhere, pointing to the difference between ethnic compositions in the southern province and other areas.

The outcome of the debate over Basra, the last of four southern provinces where Britain has ceded control, could have implications for American military strategy in the summer when U.S. troop levels will return from 20 combat brigades to a pre-buildup level of 15.

U.S. commanders are under pressure from some military and political leaders in Washington to make additional reductions to relieve the overstretched Army. In addition, Democratic members of Congress are pressing for a strategy similar to the British one: a speedy withdrawal that hands security and governance responsibility to local leaders.

Senior U.S. commanders in Iraq are wary of allowing troop levels to fall below 15 brigades, warning that a "race to 10" could lead to backsliding in the still-precarious security situation.

One senior British military official said civilian Pentagon officials recently visited the city of Basra to see whether lessons could be drawn from the withdrawal. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing private talks between the British and U.S. militaries, asserted that U.S. officials came away impressed by the transformation and suggested it could influence American policy elsewhere in Iraq.

"The levels of violence have come down so dramatically that they believe there are lessons that can be drawn from it," the British official said.

But U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who serves as day-to-day commander in Iraq, said Basra, because of its largely Shiite makeup, is different from central and northern Iraq, areas that still suffer sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni Arabs.

"Basra is a Shia-on-Shia communal power struggle," Odierno said in an interview. "We'll learn some lessons from that, but they won't necessarily completely translate to the other parts of Iraq."

In addition, senior aides to Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said that though statistics measuring violence levels in Basra had declined, it was not clear whether attacks actually had decreased or the Iraqi troops who have taken over had failed to accurately report incidents.

Brig. Gen. Joseph Anderson, Odierno's chief of staff, said the rapid hand-over in Basra had led to a trade-off in which Iraqi officials have been pressured into administering the province, even as the security situation remained tenuous.

"The counter argument is it's probably the only city, if we want to go downtown and do something, we just don't go downtown and do it. We don't like that," Anderson said about Basra. "Any other city in this country, to include even Sadr City, a portion of it, we can go in there and do something and not have to worry about it," he said, referring to the Shiite district of Baghdad where the Mahdi Army militia is dominant.

British officials dispute such claims. The British military official said that continued mentoring of Iraqi forces had given a clear view of declining violence in the province.

Arguing that Basra can serve as a model, British officials have begun to make their case with more intensity as their withdrawal has gained speed.

"Can the U.S. draw some lessons from what we've done?" asked the British military official. "If we allow the Iraqis to . . . take a little risk and we have levels of violence they can control, maybe we don't need to hold on quite so long."

Disagreements between the two allies over Basra have festered since Gordon Brown, the new British prime minister, announced in October that his government would cut its troops to 4,500 by the end of this year, with further reductions to 2,500 by spring.

Although officials in both governments at the time publicly declared the British decision was made in close coordination with Petraeus, some U.S. military officials have since said they were privately upset by the move, particularly since it came as the U.S. was sending more troops into Baghdad as part of its buildup.

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