BAGHDAD – Attacks against British and Iraqi forces have plunged by 90 percent in southern Iraq since London withdrew its troops from the main city of Basra, the commander of British forces there said.
The presence of British forces in downtown Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, was the single largest instigator of violence, Maj. Gen. Graham Binns told reporters Thursday on a visit to Baghdad's Green Zone.
"We thought, 'If 90 percent of the violence is directed at us, what would happen if we stepped back?"' Binns said.
Britain's 5,000 troops moved out of a former Saddam Hussein palace at Basra's heart in early September, setting up a garrison at an airport on the city's edge. Since that pullback, there's been a "remarkable and dramatic drop in attacks," Binns said.
"The motivation for attacking us was gone, because we're no longer patrolling the streets," he said.
Last spring, British troops' daily patrols through central Basra led to "steady toe to toe battles with militias fighting some of the most tactically demanding battles of the war," Binns said. Now British forces rarely enter the city center, an area patrolled only by Iraqis.
The majority of attacks now target Iraqi forces, but overall violence now is still a tenth of what it was in May and June.
"They're increasingly in the frame — more at risk — as they take over more responsibility," Binns said of his Iraqi counterparts.
In mid-December, British forces are scheduled to return control of Basra province back to Iraqi officials — officially ending Britain's combat role in Iraq.
"We've been in that de facto role since we moved out of the palace...but we hope the (December) transfer will symbolize the end of a period many in Basra city perceived as occupation," Binns said.
With an overwhelmingly Shiite population, Basra has not seen the level of sectarian violence that has torn Iraq apart since the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine north of Baghdad.
But it has seen major fighting between insurgents and coalition troops, as well as between Shiite militias vying for control of the city and its security forces.
British officials expected a spike in such "intra-militia violence" after they pulled back from the city's center, and were surprised to find none, Binns said.
"That's because the Sadrist militia is all powerful here — more powerful than Badr. If Badr was allowed to take on JAM in Basra, they'd lose pretty quickly," he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to radical cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr.
The Badr Brigade is a rival militia tied to Iraq's largest Shiite party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. The two militias have fought open street battles, most recently in the Shiite holy city of Karbala.
British officials have been talking with members of al-Sadr's militia since before this past summer, Binns said, in hopes of bringing them into the political process in Basra. He refused to give details of those talks.
"We may get to the point where the main Sadrist strain will support the Iraqi security forces — that's the goal," Binns said. "But not everyone gets it...because there are those who remain irreconcilable. For them, the offer of money to attack us is still too tempting."
Still, Binns said he believes violence is down to a level where it is manageable for Iraqi security forces.
Last month, Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced that Britain will halve its remaining troop contingent in Iraq next spring — bringing the number of troops down to 2,500. The scaling back of forces has already begun, and by the year's end Britain will have 4,500 troops based mainly at Basra's airport.
British officials have also said they cannot guarantee that any troops will remain in Iraq by the end of 2008.
Britain's participation in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion — and the continuing presence of troops in the country four years later — remains deeply unpopular at home. A total of 171 British soldiers have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.
The British presence in Iraq peaked with 46,000 troops — Binns among them — during the March 2003 invasion. It was reduced to 18,000 that May, and 8,600 by the end of May 2004. This past May, there were about 5,500 British troops in Iraq.
Meanwhile Friday, a roadside bomb killed one civilian outside a motorcycle shop in central Baghdad, police said.
Four others were wounded by the blast and transferred to a nearby hospital, they said. Some damaged was sustained to buildings next to the shop.
About an hour earlier, gunmen opened fire on the same spot, wounding one civilian, police said.
The attacks took place near the Abdul-Qadir al-Gailani mosque, a Sunni shrine in central Baghdad's Sinak district, a mixed area.