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British Troops Draw Down in Basra; Shiites Celebrate in Baghdad

August 9, 2007 at 6:40 PM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Now, a two-part update on Iraq. First, the situation in Basra in the south; that’s where British troops have been based since the invasion, but are now drawing down. We have a report narrated by Carl Dinnen of Independent Television News.

CARL DINNEN, ITV News Correspondent: Leading aircraftman Martin Beard of one squadron, the Royal Air Force Regiment, was shot dead during a foot patrol on Tuesday. Private Craig Barber, from the Second Battalion, the Royal Welsh, was shot in the driver’s seat of his Warrior on Monday. Two more soldiers, yet to be named, were killed by a bomb this morning.

Little wonder then that there is criticism that British forces are not in control as they prepare to pull out of Basra City. An unnamed U.S. intelligence official told the Washington Post that the British had basically been defeated in southern Iraq, a view rejected by the army.

MAJOR MIKE SHEARER, British Army Spokesman: You know, from a soldier’s point of view, that type of language is quite frustrating, because, to the untrained eye, it can look like that. But, in fact, we have had in the public arena for some time the conditions that we are trying to set that will allow the Iraqi security forces to take over the lead as the security in their own country.

And, of course, we’ve always known that the closer we got to setting those conditions that the rogue militia would raise their game in an attempt to make it look like they were pushing us out of the city, which I can absolutely assure you is not the case.

CARL DINNEN: British-led coalition forces initially controlled four provinces in southern Iraq, al-Muthanna, Dhi Qar, Maysan, and Basra. They have now handed over the three provinces north of Basra, where Iraqi forces are considered strong enough to take over. Basra will follow.

The Basra palace base in the city itself is expected to close within weeks. Then the British force in Iraq will essentially all be in one place: Basra airport. Although it’s a sprawling base — it even has its own bus service — it will be a single target for Iraqi insurgents.

The Iranians are widely believed to be backing the Shia militias around Iraq. Today, during a visit by the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, the Iranians were trying to deflect that accusation.

PARVIZ DAVOODI, First Vice President, Iran (through translator): Stability in Iraq depends on two factors: pulling out the alien forces and stopping their interference; and also on the sovereignty and strength of Nouri al-Maliki’s democratic government.

CARL DINNEN: But even if all the Shia militias could be reigned in by Iran, Mr. al-Maliki’s government would still face as serious a threat from Sunni insurgents, not to mention Kurdish separatists.

A hundred and sixty-eight British personnel have now been killed since the invasion of Iraq. And as British forces pull back to Basra airport, many are now coming to the conclusion that they may soon be preparing to leave altogether.

An update from Baghdad

Damien Cave
The New York Times
This particular pilgrimage has suffered a lot of violence in the past. Two years ago, a thousand people died in a stampede on a bridge [...] This year, it appears to have been much more organized.

RAY SUAREZ: Now to Baghdad, where there was a major Shiite religious festival today. Judy Woodruff talked to Damien Cave of the New York Times a short while ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Damien, thank you for being with us. Let's start with this pilgrimage today of Shiite Muslims, I guess hundreds of thousands of them in Baghdad. Tell us what that looks like. Is that all about a religious event, or is there something more to it?

DAMIEN CAVE, New York Times: Well, at this point in a country where many of these Shiite festivals were not allowed to be celebrated under Saddam Hussein, these massive pilgrimages have become both an act of faith and a show of force for the Shiites in power.

In this case here in Baghdad, the people who are moving through the city are heading to Kadhimiya for the Shrine of Imam Musa al-Kadhim, who is an eighth-century imam, and basically they're moving to an area that's the heart of Shiite power here.

And for those who are moving through, many of them are making comments not just about their faith, but also as this, as a sign of a challenge to the terrorists, a challenge to the Sunni extremist groups who have been attacking Shiites. It's basically an effort in part to show how many people they can get on the streets, similar to a protest you might see in Washington.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, we read that it's mostly the Iraqis who are providing security for this. What's the significance of that?

DAMIEN CAVE: Well, what's interesting is this particular pilgrimage has suffered a lot of violence in the past. Two years ago, a thousand people died in a stampede on a bridge after a rumor of a suicide bomber. There were sniper and mortar attacks last year.

This year, it appears to have been much more organized, with soldiers every 50 yards along a specific route, and in many cases using government vehicles from buses from the ministry of transportation to trucks from the ministry of industry. You know, even Humvees that are armored Humvees for the military were filled with pilgrims on the roof, inside, on the hood moving towards the shrine.

So, in many ways, it was a combination of both government resources and a grassroots community effort among Shiites. In many cases here, particularly in Baghdad where so many Sunnis have been pushed out, those two forces have come together, as they did today.

Iraqi parliament in recess

Damien Cave
The New York Times
There were at least 15 members of parliament who had come through in the first week of their recess to Amman. Many of them are there to see their families who they have moved there to get away from the violence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's talk about the Iraqi parliament. They are on recess. It's August. What are they doing? You've just come back from Jordan. I guess that's one of the places where they've gone.

DAMIEN CAVE: Yes, it's actually very interesting. There were at least 15 members of parliament who had come through in the first week of their recess to Amman. Many of them are there to see their families who they have moved there to get away from the violence here, and some of them suggest that moving to Amman, at least for the recess, may actually help the political process by tamping down tensions here in Baghdad and by giving these members of parliament access to each other in an environment where they can visit each other without 25 guards.

In some ways, this is their effort simply to say that they had a justified reason to leave. But by the same token, it's a comment on just how complicated the political situation has become here in Baghdad, where working in Amman for some of these people is more productive than working in the country that they are paid to serve.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And meanwhile, the prime minister, Mr. Maliki, is in Iran, as we just saw in that report. Why is he there?

DAMIEN CAVE: Well, this is actually at least the second trip for him within a year, and he's there to talk about corporation. The Americans are hoping that he'll urge Iran not to destabilize the country in ways that also go against the Americans.

But these countries are neighboring countries. They have a lot of interaction. Many of the products that you find here in Iraq come from Iran. The private sector is very involved. Tourism from Iran, from Shiites coming here for religious festivals like the one today, are quite common.

So, in many cases, it's simply a trip to a neighbor. But what they discussed will depend in part on, you know, what the pressure from here is on Maliki and what the pressure from the Americans are.

He hasn't said very much. There was a statement released today about the prime minister saying that most of the conversation was about economics. It's fair to say that I'm sure there were lots of other topics on the table, as well.

Iraq-Iran relationship

Damien Cave
The New York Times
Several lawmakers have said to me in recent months that, you know, the threats of American withdrawal and issues that come up in Washington in many cases are pushing Iraqis into the arms of Iran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Bush had a news conference today in Washington talking about Iran as a destabilizing force, a troubling country. Maliki sees it differently? Or does he share President Bush's view?

DAMIEN CAVE: Well, I mean, I think you have to understand that, for the Shiite leaders here in Iraq, Iran is in many ways a partner through faith and through simply being a neighbor. You know, several lawmakers have said to me in recent months that, you know, the threats of American withdrawal and issues that come up in Washington in many cases are pushing Iraqis into the arms of Iran, at least potentially, at least in the short term. That's one argument.

The other argument is simply that this is a natural relationship that Iran has interests here and that it's in Iraq's interest to have a close relationship to Iran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, in return, increasing talk in Washington the Maliki government is not doing what it should be doing; that's the view you hear privately from the administration. How strong is the Maliki government seen right now?

DAMIEN CAVE: I mean, at this point, it's seen as very, very weak, both by the Americans, by Iraqis on the street, and even by members of parliament. I mean, one of the things that's stunning when you talk to people is how often they use words like "failure," words that are basically a judgment that, in many cases, people believe will not be reserved.

One of the things that's a sign of that is Americans and Iraqis are increasingly talking about the provinces. President Bush spoke about this today. Power in Iraq, in many cases, is being dispersed from the central government, which is viewed as something that's simply not working, to the more local tribal areas or to provincial governments. Basically, it's becoming a more decentralized system as a result of the failures in Baghdad.

Decline in security in Basra

Damien Cave
The New York Times
Basra is a complicated case. I mean, the British have basically been presiding over an extreme decline in security. When they got there, things were relatively calm.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And speaking of the provinces, Basra, we just heard that report that a British major defending what he said the British have done. He said, "We haven't been defeated by the insurgents." What's the view there to what's happened, about what's happened in Basra?

DAMIEN CAVE: Basra is a complicated case. I mean, the British have basically been presiding over an extreme decline in security. When they got there, things were relatively calm. It's a relatively homogenous province, in terms of mostly Shiites.

However, increasingly, as the power has shifted to the provinces, there have been big battles for the power, for the patronage, for all the things that you can get access to through the government. And Basra, as an oil-rich region, it's been particularly intense. You have, you know, armed thugs moving through the streets loyal to various political groups, and it's extremely complicated, particularly for a British force that has 5,500 soldiers there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Damien Cave, thank you very much.

DAMIEN CAVE: Sure, my pleasure.