This summer, British forces in southern Iraq returned the first two of Iraq's 18 provinces to native control. Another handover is imminent. But it's anybody's guess when the most important of the Brits' four provinces might go.Muthanna province was the first and easiest. This remote province is sparsely populated, deeply hostile to foreign fighters -- in fact, to any foreigners -- and firmly ruled by its dominant sheiks. The only reason coalition forces were there at all was to look after a Japanese team building a new power plant. When the Japanese finished up and headed home this summer, their 500 Australian minders moved north to neighboring Dhi Qar province, relieving an Italian force redeploying to Lebanon for peacekeeping duty.Dhi Qar, another barren desert province, itself was in the process of transitioning to Iraqi control. The Aussies remain under a Memorandum of Understanding with Baghdad. Their job: to sit, wait and watch Muthanna and Dhi Qar. In the event extremists try to turn the provinces into Al Anbar-style insurgent havens, the Aussies will swing into action in their Light Armored Vehicles.Further north, the Brits have begun a staged withdrawal from the border province of Maysan, population 900,000. Once upon a time, a British battlegroup was based at Camp Abu Naji near Al Amarah, Maysan's biggest city. The base, a Saddam-era prison, was a symbol of the occupation to Al Amarah's proud, xenophobic and impoverished people. It became, in the words of British Lieutenant Colonel David Labouchere, "an indirect-fire magnet". In May, Labouchere and his battlegroup from the Queen's Royal Hussars endured a 10-minute, 100-round, middle-of-the-night barrage that rattled even this seasoned officer. He recalls cowering naked under a table with the base's pet goat Ben, who "pissed and shit everywhere" in panic. Miraculously, no one was hurt.After the attack, Labouchere came up with a plan to speed Maysan towards Iraqi control. He would shut down Abu Naji and take to the desert with a small, light mobile force resupplied mostly by air. With this force he would patrol the porous border with Iran, conduct diplomatic missions into tribal areas and check up on Iraqi troops and border cops. The idea was to remove the double irritants of a permanent facility and the large road convoys that supply it and focusing on the most critical mission -- border security -- while leveraging a reduced presence to encourage Iraqis to pick up the slack in security.Labouchere shuttered Abu Naji in August. Today he rides through Maysan like a modern-day Lawrence of Arabia, uniting the province's tribes under the banner of Iraqi control. He hopes the formally hand over the province in a matter of months. Ideally, his battlegroup will win permission from Baghdad to continue patrolling the Iranian border even after the handover.Maysan's transfer will leave just Basra province, home to Iraq's second city Basra, with a growing population pushing two million. Basra is dominated by Shi'ite clerics including Moqtada Al Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia is more powerful by far than the city's corrupt cops. Half-hearted and heavy-handed attempts to pacify the militias over the past three years, plus a decaying infrastructure and police misbehavior unfairly blamed on the Brits, have eroded local consent to the point where most Baswaris are loudly calling for British troops to leave, often with rockets, mortars and bricks. But Basra sits atop most of Iraq's oil and generates 97 percent of the country's revenue. It cannot be abandoned until local institutions are robust and security is air tight.So the Brits have a plan. They call it Sinbad after the legendary hero who is said to have begun his voyage from Basra. British troops, reinforced by the top-notch 10th Iraqi Army division that normally patrols the city's marshy outskirts, will push into Basra one neighborhood at a time, flooding police stations with advisors while also patching up infrastructure and identifying opportunities to spend $80 million in American reconstruction funds. With the cops reformed and the streets clean, Baswaris might feel better about their British occupiers and grant them the space to continue rebuilding local government.It's a bold plan, and outnumbered coalition troops must execute it while under murderous indirect fire that, on October 1, killed one British soldier, injured another and blew up the trailer I had left just five minutes earlier. Basra's a rough town -- but one that's critical to Iraq's future. Fortunately, the British-led force here is at the top of its game, with new equipment and tactics and a growing recognition that a functional Iraq won't look like Britain or the U.S, but is still worth fighting for.Check out pics from my current Iraq trip at Flickr.-- David Axe
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