Basra, Asharq Al-Awsat- There was a great difference between the atmosphere in the British base at Basra Airport and the atmosphere inside the headquarters of the Iraqi Army’s 10th Division nearby. There were no road signs identifying the place, which was surrounded by huge fortifications of sandbags, water-filled trenches, and cement blocks.
We got out of the Range Rover on the side of the road. I and my companion, British Air Force Lt Ally Sandman, passed through an iron gate towards the entrance of the division command headquarters. An Iraqi security man in civilian clothes looked at us inquisitively but chose not to approach, apparently because of prior instructions.
There were soldiers standing around the office of Colonel Abbas, the division’s information official. Some had cigarettes, smoking apparently being permitted there, and voices could be heard in side conversations.
Colonel Abbas took care to present a smiling face throughout our wait in the “lobby”. Meanwhile an Iraqi soldier approached me to ask about the possibility of getting help to find a college in Britain where he could do graduate work. He did this after he learned that I was Asharq al-Awsat’s correspondent.
Ten minutes later Colonel Abbas accompanied me to the division commander’s office. Maj Gen Habib Talib al-Husayni sat behind a modest brown wooden desk on which were scattered papers, files, some mementos, and pictures. The curtains were drawn and the general was following the news on Al -Arabiya Television on a medium-sized set in a corner of the room.
Major General Habib appeared in good spirits and eager to have a conversation. He did not have the air of excessive military sternness that frequently characterizes senior military officers in our region.
My meeting with the general coincided with his division taking over Basra’s Shatt al-Arab Hotel from the British forces. This was the second position that the Iraqis took over from the British and they are expected to take over a third, namely, Al-Shu’aybiyah location next week. According to General Habib, the British would then occupy one single position in the city. Regarding Saddam Hussein’s former palaces in the city, which the British still use, the general told me that handing them over to the Iraqi Army hinges on reaching an understanding on the issue between Baghdad and London.
So far the 10th Division commander, whose last post in Saddam Hussein’s era was deputy commander of the 8thdivision, appeared happy with his own performance since he took over his new post two years ago. The 10th division is responsible for four governorates in southern Iraq: Al-Samawah, Al-Amarah, Al-Nasiriyah, and Basra. It has 10,000 men and consists of four brigades with one brigade stationed in each of these four provinces.
Apparently the deteriorating situation in Basra has driven the army to consider adding a fifth brigade and deploying it in the governorate, according to Major General Habib, who rarely speaks to the media. He said that the division’s tasks include maintaining public order, security, and stability for the citizens, pursuing outlaws, combating terrorism, and providing assistance to the police force to help it to carry out its tasks.
It seems that the police force in Basra really needs this support. Although it is 15,000-strong, it is accused of shortcomings and corruption.
With perfect diplomacy the 10th Division commander says: “The police might be slow to perform their duties in some governorates for many reasons. This is why the army sometimes intervenes in police work.”
Speaking sternly, he also points out that the militias playa saboteur role and attack all those who do not follow their wishes.
He added: “As an army, we have the duty of enforcing the law in any place where armed men operate. We need to confront those outlaws wherever they are.”
He added that the army does not shirk from confrontations that are imposed on it and stated in a clearly sad tone that his troops are subjected to assassination, ambushes, and explosive devices. According to its commander, the division also contributes to the maintenance of public order in Baghdad. He declared: “We are proud that we help to enforce the law in Baghdad. We operate in some of the capital’s most dangerous areas.”
You hear complaints about everything everywhere you go in Iraq. Major General Habib was no exception. He said that his division suffers from logistical problems, declaring that “we do not have sufficient support although our resources are limited.”
He added: “The support we get from the Defense Ministry is also not up to the level we wish.”
Despite the overwhelming chaos in Basra and the daily killings, Major General Habib said that he was optimistic about the future, especially as the transfer of the security files in the south to the Iraqi authorities has been successfully carried out.
With a big smile, he says: “This makes the people more optimistic and gives them reassurance. It makes them feel more secure and enhances their trust in the army.”