MPs claim Basra not yet secure
British troops are planning to hand over control of Basra to Iraqi troops despite failing to secure the Iraqi city, MPs have warned.
The Commons defence committee said UK forces’ goal to establish security in Basra “remains unfulfilled”.
The all-party committee of MPs accepted “some progress has been made” towards securing the conditions for democracy and economic reconstruction but said considerable problems remain in the city.
MPs questioned whether the root causes of violence in Basra had been tackled. In particular the report warned the “murderous, corrupt and militia-infiltrated” elements of the police force must be rooted out “as a matter of priority”.
The number of troops stationed at Basra air base are set to halve by 2,500 as the British army moves towards an overwatch role in Iraq.
But MPs asked what this small force would be able achieve – particularly as defence minister Bob Ainsworth said in July that any deployment below 5,000 would be “difficult to sustain”.
Gordon Brown said in October he wanted to see troop numbers scaled back to 2,500 by next spring, in an inconsistency flagged by the committee’s report.
The report said: “If there is still a role for UK forces in Iraq, those forces must be capable of doing more than just protecting themselves at Basra air station.
“If the reduction in numbers means they cannot do more than this, the entire UK presence in south eastern Iraq will be open to question.”
The Liberal Democrats, who have called for an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq, warned against reducing troop numbers for political gains.
Lib Dem defence spokesman Nick Harvey said: “Whilst moves to withdraw our forces from Iraq are welcome and overdue, it appears that the government is making arbitrary reductions in troop numbers without clear explanations and adequate consideration.”
He continued: “One has to question why in July a force below 5,000 was not sustainable and now, four months on, ministers talk of reducing numbers to 2,500.”
The committee warned the Iraqi army would likely continue to need logistical support from the British army.
Defence secretary Des Browne responded to the report: “We have always said that our obligations to the Iraqi nation will not end when all four provinces within our area of operations have been transferred to Iraqi control.”
He said local security forces in Basra had grown in confidence and ability and the Iraqi army had proved it could hand “the occasional security incidents swiftly and effectively”.
But he accepted the Iraqi army was “not the finished article”.