Global Policy Forum

British Move Raises Fears on Iraq Supply Lines


By Thom Shanker and Stephen Farrell

New York Times
September 16, 2007

As British troops pull out of their last base in Basra, some military commanders and civilian government officials in the area are concerned that the transition could leave them and a major supply route to Baghdad at greater risk of attack. The route, a lifeline that carries fuel, food, ammunition and equipment for the war, crosses desert territory that is home to rival militias and criminal gangs. In interviews, Americans stationed in the southern provinces and Pentagon planners say they are closely watching the situation there as the British pass security responsibility to local Iraqi units.

There is little talk of increasing the American troop presence along the major supply route, which links Baghdad and Kuwait and is called M.S.R. Tampa, although officials in Baghdad and Washington say other options include increased patrols by armed surveillance aircraft, attack helicopters and combat jets.

The significant attention being paid to security in southern Iraq came as the senior allied commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, announced plans in Washington this week to reduce American troop presence by five combat brigades across the country by next summer. General Petraeus, in an interview this week, said he was confident that continued allied and Iraqi patrols along the supply routes, and a growing Iraqi security presence in the south, would guarantee protection of the desert roadways. But the general, en route back to his headquarters in Baghdad, also said that he would stop in London, where "we are going to talk tasks" and that "among the tasks is the need to continue line-of-communications security, certainly."

General Petraeus said the security mission in three of the four provinces in southern Iraq already had passed to Iraqi forces with no discernible impact on the supply routes. And he said bypass routes now being used allow convoys to skirt some trouble areas. The British pulled out of their last base in central Basra on Sept. 3, and are set to cut their force to 5,200 from 5,500. The remaining British troops are now stationed at Basra International Airport, outside the city.

They are still responsible for security across Basra Province until it is transferred to the Iraqi government, a formal step toward what is known as provincial Iraqi control and that is expected to happen this year. British commanders insist that their plans "go up to 2009," and that even after they transfer Basra they will continue to meet all their obligations, including protection of the Tampa supply route. Basra Province is the last of four British-administered provinces in the south to pass into Iraqi control with Muthanna, Maysan and Dhi Qar Provinces already transferred. Maj. Mike Shearer, a British military spokesman in Basra, said that during every transfer the allied forces signed a memorandum of understanding with the province that enabled foreign troops "to maintain freedom of maneuver and the right to transit" along major supply routes. The British-led southern coalition forces had "already gone through this process with three provinces without any concerns or issues pertaining to the M.S.R.'s," he said. "We do not anticipate any problems with the security of the M.S.R.'s that transit through Basra once provincial Iraqi control is achieved. We will continue to provide convoy force protection tasks just as we and our coalition partners do at the present time," he added.

Lt. Col. Peter Sims, an Australian military engineer working on civil military operations in Basra, said in July that his unit had engaged villages to protect the Tampa route by paying residents to clear the roadside of debris that could conceal homemade bombs. Brig. James Bashall, commander of the British First Mechanized Brigade in Basra, said in an interview in July that the goal for the transition to Iraqi control would include a long period of "overwatch," in which, even though British troops had left the city, they would remain in a support capacity and would intervene "in a limited sense" if the Iraqis asked. "The main effort will be supporting the Iraqi Army in terms of training, preparation and logistics," Brigadier Bashall said. "I could see a support to the U.S. in Baghdad, because you still have the lines of communication from Kuwait up to the north. They have their own M.S.R. issue with Tampa going all the way up from the Kuwait border."

According to officers at the American Third Army forward headquarters in Kuwait, which oversees the vast shipments of supplies flowing north into Iraq, on any given day more than 3,000 vehicles are on the road in convoys hauling food, fuel, ammunition and other equipment. To keep the war effort going each day requires about 3.3 million gallons of fuel, the equivalent of filling the tanks of 150,000 automobiles, as well as enough food to serve 780,000 meals, according to statistics at the Third Army headquarters. Although far more vulnerable to attack by roadside bombs and ambush, land convoys are cheaper than hauling the same volume of goods by air. In comparison, on any day, the Third Army headquarters launches about 110 airlift missions, moving about 3,200 people and 400 pallets of supplies. At the American military headquarters in Baghdad, Lt. Col. James Hutton, spokesman for the Multinational Corps-Iraq, said military statistics showed "a recent drop in both the number and effectiveness of attacks on these convoys." The most significant threat in the south continues to be roadside explosives, he said. Colonel Hutton said commanders attributed this decline in attacks to "aggressive patrolling," and he added that the recent call for a cease-fire by the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia is the biggest in Iraq, might "lead to further reductions of violence in the southern provinces." But Iraqis in the Basra region fear that the Iraqi security forces are too heavily infiltrated by the militias to ensure order in the city, a vital oil hub where smuggling, banditry and carjacking have long been a way of life for powerful criminal gangs. Iraqi policemen in Basra privately concede that they are afraid to confront the militias, who have powerful backing in the religious Shiite parties that run Basra, and that if they arrest criminals they face retribution from powerful tribes and criminal gangs. After a relatively benign first two years in the south, during which their troops patrolled in berets and open-top vehicles in some areas, the British have suffered a serious downturn in the past year.

As the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias intensified attacks, the British pulled back, and were seen less and less on the streets. "Since a year ago the British forces started to only worry about their own safety, neglecting the locals' safety," said Hakim al-Mayahi, the provincial council member in charge of the security portfolio, on Sept. 2. "The tribes and the locals have better weapons than our security forces, who weren't provided with more than the usual Kalashnikovs and R.P.G.'s while the tribes even have mortars and heavy machine guns." R.P.G.'s are rocket-propelled grenades. There is speculation that Prime Minister Gordon Brown will capitalize on domestic antiwar sentiment to pull British troops out of an unpopular war, although the British government has given no timetable for withdrawal.

Concerns about M.S.R. Tampa are based on experience. When Sadr militia fighters rose up in the spring of 2004, a number of bridges were attacked, threatening the supply lines. With that in mind, before Iraqi national elections in January 2005, commanders ordered the stockpiling of ammunition, food and fuel, partly motivated by the desire to halt military convoys before the vote, depriving insurgents of a target.

Thom Shanker reported from Washington, and Stephen Farrell from Baghdad. Ali Hamdani contributed reporting from Basra.

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