BASRA, Iraq – Many Shiites in this southern port city say they want British troops to leave, though the region is still bloodied by a persistent grind of killings, including Sunni insurgent bombings and Shiite-on-Shiite slayings amid a competition for political control.
Several prominent Basra leaders on Friday agreed with an assessment by Britain’s army chief that the British presence only worsens the violence and the soldiers should withdraw soon. Gen. Richard Dannatt backpedaled Friday from the comments he made in an interview a day earlier, saying he meant troops should leave within years, but the statements caused a political storm in Britain.
In Basra, Shiites insist the British presence only provides a target for attackers seeking to end the “occupation” – and some said the troops are doing nothing to rein in party-backed Shiite militias that have risen to prominence.
“To tell the truth, (the British) have caused the chaos and the security decline in southern Iraq, especially Basra, by their leniency with the militias and their parties,” said Ghali Nijm, head of the Shiite Wifaq party in Basra.
In early October, British and Iraqi forces began a neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweep of Basra similar to one launched in August by U.S. troops in Baghdad.
“The presence of these forces is necessary so that they can participate in establishing stability in Iraq,” government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.
The predominantly Shiite south has long been less violent than Baghdad and the Sunni regions of central and western Iraq, where the anti-U.S. insurgency has been based.
But there has still been steady bloodshed, and it has increased this year with the swelling of sectarian killings across the country. Basra province – home to about 3 million people, where most of the 7,000 British troops are based – sees a constant toll of bombings, shootings and kidnappings.