By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
July 14, 2008 - Security progress in Basra is "overwhelming" and Iraq's second-largest city could be "another Dubai in the coming decade," the commander of Multinational Division Southeast said today, referring to the bustling international business hub. British Army Maj. Gen. Barney White-Spunner told Pentagon reporters via teleconference from Baghdad that Operation Charge of the Knights -- ordered by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in March -- has "well and truly" turned the tide in the city.
Before the operation, militias controlled large parts of the city. Militia leaders, many under control of Iran, intimidated the populace and turned the city into a crime empire.
Basra is key to Iraq's success, with oil fields, the port of Umm Qasr and the international airport being economic engines for the region, White-Spunner said.
Since Operation Charge of the Knights began, Iraqi security forces have reasserted their authority over the city. "We now find people free to go about their daily business without fear of intimidation," he said.
Daily life in Basra is much like any other Middle Eastern city, the general said.
An air of normalcy has returned, and the Iraqi government has managed the humanitarian situation with only minimal coalition support, the British general said.
"The curfew's been lifted, and water and fresh food are obviously in plentiful supply," he said. "At the same time, Operation Charge of the Knights allowed the Iraqi government to arrest hundreds of criminal and violent extremists who'd taken advantage of the situation."
But more significantly to coalition forces and the Iraqi government, the operation showed the militias had little support in Basra.
"Once the leadership fled, the ordinary rank-and-file militia ... very soon returned to normal life, which supports our contention that they weren't committed terrorists or committed militiamen," White-Spunner said. "They were poor Shiias who didn't have opportunities for jobs or whatever and have been perverted by the militias."
Iraqi troops led the operation with advice from embedded military training teams and coalition logistics support.
"I don't deny that at the beginning, some elements of Iraqi security forces did wobble a bit, but the Iraqi government soon brought in reinforcements," the general said. "The situation was very soon under control, showing a degree of speed and practicability as I think would have been impossible only a year ago."
Continuing the security gains is important to the city's future. The Iraqis are putting in place a counterterrorist structure so "when those violent extremist elements do try to come back -- and some inevitably will -- then they're ready for them," he said. "There was a slogan scrawled on a bridge in Amarah by one of these fleeing violent extremists. It said, 'We'll be back.' And underneath that, an Iraqi soldier had scribbled, 'And we'll be waiting for you.'"