Page last updated at 00:21 GMT, Sunday, 16 December 2007

Soldiers reflect on time in Basra

soldiers basra
British soldiers have patrolled Basra province since 2003

As Britain hands over full control of the Iraqi province of Basra, soldiers who have been part of the mission speak of its successes, failures and their predictions for the troubled region they have occupied since 2003.

Some say the British troops have long overstayed their welcome, while others believe they are leaving a job half done.

While military leadership says the time is right for the handover and the Iraqi government, police and forces are as ready as they will ever be to take control of Basra city and the surrounding province, frontline troops say their accomplishments could soon be erased if the situation is allowed to deteriorate.

One soldier, who is currently serving in Helmand province in Afghanistan and spent seven months in Basra last year, believes the pullout is happening two years too early.

"Unless a lot has changed then the whole Iraq thing will have been a waste of time," he told the BBC.

"It was all too soon. We shouldn't have drawn down our presence and bases, for the simple reason that the Iraqi forces were not ready."

The soldier, who asked to remain anonymous, said the British government was too eager to appease people at home who were increasingly questioning the country's commitments in Iraq.

'Bad memory'

"The feeling amongst the sceptics here is that when we withdraw, we will probably be back in Iraq in a few years' time sorting out the mess that we should have sorted out before we left."

Another frontline soldier who served in the region said: "Basra will be a bad memory to the British army for a long time."

The soldier said a lack of political will means there were limits on what Britain could ever achieve from the moment they arrived as an invading force in 2003.

The sense I get from speaking to people in the region is that it is still reasonably perilous. Protection will be a big, big issue
Former British officer who served in Basra

"The equipment we have got out there is good but let's be realistic - the Iraqis are corrupt. That has become their way of life and you could not change that."

The soldier said the sense on the ground is that Iran is continuing to arm insurgents in Iraq and nothing is being done to stop them.

A former army officer who left the British forces two months ago said the fighting militias who have infiltrated the British-trained police in Basra will continue to pose a threat to the area's security.

Essential rebuilding

"We still don't know how they are going to react when they are in full control and whether they are truly going to be an impartial force," he said of the local police.

The former major said British troops accomplished a great deal in Basra, including rebuilding essential infrastructure and restoring a decent quality of life for most people.

UK troops
Troops withdrew from central Basra palace to the outskirts

He said the running of the province's electricity supply and oil production centres have been successfully handed back to the well-trained Iraqis who did the job before the invasion, but who now do their work under threat of physical harm from battling militias.

"The sense I get from speaking to people in the region is that it is still reasonably perilous. Protection will be a big, big issue."

The officer said the reality is that most British troops will be "glad to see the back of it" when they leave Basra and feel that the mission has come under criticism.

But, he added, it is impossible to know what the region would look like today had the British never been in control.

In the short term, the 4,500 British troops in Iraq will now focus on training Iraqi forces, which will be reduced to 2,500 in the spring.

More than 170 British servicemen and women have died while serving in Iraq since 2003.

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