- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 29, 2004

BASRA, Iraq — After three deaths in as many weeks, the British army has stopped patrolling the streets of Basra despite pleas from residents to take on the Iraqi insurgents.

With troops now moving only in armored vehicles on patrols not more than 100 yards from base, forces loyal to rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have stepped into the vacuum, roaming the streets with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s.

Vital reconstruction has been halted, and citizens are suffering deprivations daily.

But the military insists that its strategy of waiting out daily bombardments by Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army is preferable to attacking the militia, which they say would lead to an escalation of violence and civilian deaths.

Instead, they have thrown up a ring of steel around Basra with tanks guarding almost every bridge, watching for an estimated 600 insurgents who are expected to return from Najaf, where they left the Imam Ali shrine Friday.

The British strategy has not gone down well with residents, who are subjected to curfews, dwindling food and water supplies, scant basic amenities and daily intimidation from the militiamen.

Sheik al-Sadr does not have widespread support in Basra, but he has attracted a significant number of impoverished religious fanatics and mercenaries. The local police are inadequately armed to confront the insurgents without British support.

“These last three weeks have been very difficult for us,” said a 26-year-old teacher who identified himself only as Arrif. “It is not safe to go out on the street because there are bombs and shootings. We are afraid the situation will escalate and that this will affect the economy because people cannot go to work.

“The majority of Basra people want the [British] army to enter the city.”

Others agreed.

“People in Basra blame the British forces for this situation. They want them to deploy outside their barracks, because this would get rid of the Mahdi militia,” said student Wa’il, 24.

“Of course, people will be killed, but we will accept casualties if the British deploy. We need your help now to prevent these bad things.”

With special forces operating in the city, the British army has gathered enough intelligence on the key leaders of the estimated 400 insurgents to “take them out if we want to,” according to military sources who said any decision to retake Basra by force must come from the politicians in London.

“I can understand what the Iraqis are saying, but confronting violence with violence is not going to work,” said Maj. Ian Clooney, a British military spokesman in Basra.

There are frequent gunbattles between the British and insurgents, who sustained losses of about 400 in the past four months.

“If our soldiers become a target, they will fire back and take them out,” Maj. Clooney said. “We don’t make a big song and dance about casualties we have inflicted on them, but [rocket-propelled grenade] operators, gunmen and mortar teams are being killed.”

The area around Basra remains quiet, but there are still attacks on bases. British bases have suffered more than 1,000 bombardments.

The Royal Marines of 40 Commando, who do not have armored vehicles and therefore have been consigned mainly to convoy escort duty, have made impressive inroads in befriending locals and carrying out patrols in the desert.

Although several pipelines were blown up over the weekend, the Royal Welch Fusiliers have been able to ward off many attacks on the vital conduits that pump oil to tankers in the Gulf.

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