AL AMARAH, Iraq -- British forces could begin pulling out of one southern Iraqi province as early as this year, said Lt. Col. Andrew Williams, the senior commander here.
"In three or four months, we could begin withdrawing from Maysan province," Col. Williams, 43, said during an interview at his headquarters at Camp Abu Naji near Al Amarah, 100 miles north of Basrah and home to more than 1,000 soldiers with Britain's Coldstream Guards and Royal Hussars regiments.
Two soldiers from this camp have died in insurgent attacks in the past seven weeks, the most recent, 21-year-old Lance Cpl. Alan Brackenbury, on May 31. More than 80 British troops have died in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.
Col. Williams called the security situation in Maysan "serious," but added that local forces are on track to take over security this year.
His superiors at British army headquarters in Northwood, near London, decline to discuss dates, saying any drawdown of the 8,500 British troops in Iraq is contingent on Iraqi forces taking on greater responsibility for the country's security.
British troops, under the umbrella of the Multi-National Division Southeast, account for the majority of coalition soldiers in four southern provinces: Basra, Muthana, Dhi Qar and Maysan.
The balance of the division is composed of soldiers from Italy, Australia, Denmark, Norway and other coalition countries.
Iraqi soldiers and police in the area are still incapable of independent operations, said British officers at Abu Naji. The police, especially, are widely considered corrupt and inept.
On a patrol on Thursday, Coldstream Guards Sgt. Gary Howe, 32, met with Iraqi police officers at several stations in Al Amarah and asked them to identify troublemakers and suspected insurgents in town.
Iraqi police Capt. Mohammed Radke said that he knew of an insurgent driving a white Toyota, but declined to give details. Sgt. Howe looked frustrated by the answer.
Asked whether he trusts the local police, Col. Williams answered bluntly: "No."
Maysan province, with nearly 1 million people and few major industries, is one of the poorest of Iraq's 18 provinces.
The province's majority Shi'ite population was oppressed and denied resources under Saddam Hussein's regime.
In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, Maysan's Shi'ites have been alternately jubilant and restive. Early optimism gave way to deep cynicism when coalition forces didn't quickly improve the province's shortage of electricity and fresh water.
Last year, Maysan's poor were among the strongest supporters of Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr's rebellion in Najaf. Now popular sentiment toward coalition forces in the province is balanced on what Col. Williams calls a "razor's edge."
"Frustrated" is how Col. Williams describes Maysan's Shi'ites. He said that violence in the province is spurred by a combination of poverty, harsh physical conditions, tribal tension and a perception that coalition forces are "infidel occupiers" as well as tribal tension.
Col. Williams said that reducing the number of foreign troops will reduce the level of violence in the province to historic levels by removing a major target of insurgent attacks.
"Violence is a way of life in Maysan. There has always been violence; there is always going to be violence. If you were to take away multinational forces from Maysan, would there be less violence? Yes."
Officers at Britain's Permanent Joint Headquarters, which oversees all deployed British forces, said there is no schedule for drawing down British forces in Iraq.
"Conditions determine when [British] forces withdraw," said Maj. David Steel, a British army spokesman. "We're in this for the long term."
But Col. Williams said Britain cannot be in a position of occupying Iraq over the long term.
"You've got to get to a state in this country where you start handing it back to the Iraqi people. We're not going anywhere unless it's agreed upon by the Iraqi government. [However,] they clearly don't want us here forever."
Asked whether a British withdrawal would allow Maysan to become a haven for terrorists, Col. Williams said, "That's crystal ball gazing."