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Senior British Official Explains British Presence and Plans for Southern Iraq | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat- A senior British Official knowledgeable about the current state of affairs in Iraq has said that the main goal for 2007 is to “hand over the security authority to the Iraqi forces.” However, speaking to Asharq Al Awsat on condition of anonymity in an exclusive interview, he admitted that this did not mean that the multinational forces would leave Iraq. He explained: “The date of the departure of the multinational forces is still an open question.”

It is anticipated that the British forces would be based at Basra International Airport, where there is the largest camp of the multinational forces in southern Iraq. The official pointed out, “The main factor for ensuring the security of the country depends on the political establishment.” He added, “No number of soldiers can achieve this goal without a pledge by the Iraqi political authorities to try to achieve it.”

The British official said: “Our goal in 2007 is not to reduce the number of British forces in Iraq but rather our goal is to fulfill the demand of the Iraqi government to make 2007 the year of transferring security authority to Iraq and the control over the Iraqi army, which is still under the command of the multinational forces.” He noted that the system of handing over authority began with the multinational forces transferring power [to Iraqi control] for the provinces of Al Muthanna, Dhi Qar, and Najaf. He added that there are 15 more provinces under the security control of the coalition forces, which “would be handed over to the Iraqi forces this year.” He added, “There will be a small but effective presence in Basra. The multinational forces would be less visible,” on the Iraqi streets.

The official explained that it is most likely that the forces would leave the cities for the camps gradually. He said, “The date of the departure of the multinational forces after 2007 is still an open question. However, there is a realization that we cannot stay there forever,” adding, “This would be up to the Iraqi government.” He said that one of the reasons that prompted the United Kingdom to reduce the role of its forces in Iraq is that “people would inevitably get tired of the presence of foreign forces in the country.”

The official ruled out the possibility of implementing the proposal given by Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi to return complete units of the former Iraqi army to the new army. He said, “I do not think that there is a plan to bring back complete units, but I recognize, like most Iraqi politicians, that there is need to reconsider the process of Debathification.” He added: “A considerable number of former army soldiers have joined the new army.” However, he said that he agrees with Al-Hashimi, who was in London last week and who held intense meetings with British officials, that “one of the most important elements in building a viable Iraqi state is to hand over the security authority to the Iraqi security forces.”

The British official said that “political competition” between various Shia parties and factions in southern Iraq would “undoubtedly lead to instability.” He added, “Competition exists between supporters of the Sadr movement and the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). This is healthy in politics, but it causes serious instability when it spills out onto the streets.” He maintained that the best way to prevent armed confrontations between supporters of the various parties is through “a bigger role by the politicians on the national level there.” He refused to go into the details about this “competition,” saying, “We do not want to interfere in internal Iraqi affairs.”

Regarding reports that elements of the Al Mehdi Army of Shia leader Moqtada al Sadr have been involved in attacks on the multinational forces and the decision of the American army to confront it, the official said, “We do not want to confront any specific political movement. This is not our policy. However, we must target specific individuals responsible for directing attacks against us.” He added, “We do not see the Al Mehdi Army as a homogenous group. It is clear that there are varying agendas within the Al Mehdi Army.”

Regarding the Iranian role in Iraq, the official said, “We have no problem in Iran playing a role in Iraq–on the contrary; we encourage a close and positive relationship between the two countries.” He added, “This is not what worries us. What worries us is the presence of elements deliberately trying to weaken the Iraqi state.” The British official refused to identify any specific acts of sabotage for which the British authorities hold Iranian backed elements responsible. “The worry is based on the day to day attacks that we see in Basra,” he said. He added, “The interrogation of detainees gives us the impression that there is a deliberate effort to target the multinational forces.”

The British official maintained that a change has taken place in the Syrian position toward Iraq. He said, “The situation has become encouraging since Nigel Sheinwald, the adviser to the British prime minister, visited Damascus last summer.” He explained that since that visit, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem visited Baghdad and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani paid an official visit to Damascus this week. He said that the Saudi role in Iraq is important, adding that the United Kingdom “would like to see a large political presence in Baghdad.” The official added, “Saudi visits to Baghdad are not as frequent as Iraqi politicians would have liked.” He added, “The Saudis are ready to do what they can, including contributing to the International Compact with Iraq and supporting it.” He concluded that the United Kingdom “does not have a strategy of its own for Iraq; Iraq is a sovereign country and should have a strategy of its own, which we should support it.”