William Shawcross reports from Basra on how Britain is training a new Iraqi army - but warns against too early a handover.
HE was an art student until he joined the new Iraqi army last November. "When the coalition freed us I decided to join the army to help my country," Hamed al-Bahadij, 22, said. "I love my country and I wanted to help my people." He is now training to be an officer at the Iraqi Military Academy at Ar-Rustimayah outside Baghdad. First Lieutenant Yasser Ahmed Rassol is another young Iraqi army officer in training. He was sent in a group of 40 students on a 13-week course at the Infantry Battle School at Brecon, in Powys. His English is good. "We learnt to fight in built-up areas," he said. He will soon graduate as a company commander.
The academy was built by the British Army in 1924 and has now been restored by Britain. When I visited it in 2004 it was just a building site. Now it is the best training school in Iraq and is known among the British officers as Sandhurst in the Sand. It has begun to produce 600 young officers a year. Some 250 have already graduated and are out in the field commanding platoons.
The academy has already held two passing out parades. According to Colonel Maurice Sheen, a member of the coalition training team, "parents are often in tears at the parades. They say, 'Thank you for what you have done for my son'."
I made a brief visit to Iraq last week with General Sir Mike Jackson, the chief of the general staff. This was his seventh trip to Iraq since the war and his last as CGS. He retires in July. I came away convinced that the British contribution to Iraq is still both vital and useful.
The terrorists are trying to frighten us and the Americans away by their hideously brutal and often indiscriminate attacks, but they promise the Iraqi people only bloodshed and barbarism. The coalition, on the other hand, is helping the vast maof the Iraqi people to build a better future.
The new Iraqi army is, for obvious reasons, vital to the new Iraq. As it grows, so the American and British-led coalition can hand over more and more of the country. We also visited the Iraqi 10th Division headquarters outside Basra. The transformation of the division has been extraordinary. Jackson met Major- General Abdul al-Lateef Thuban Mohammed, its commander, whom he has talked to regularly since 2004.
Recruits to the army and police are being targeted by the terrorists, said Lateef, "because the terrorists know we are the armed fist that can destroy them".
The division's equipment is still modest but officers proudly showed off newly delivered Polish armoured cars named Hogs. (Poland has greatly increased its international profile as an important member of the coalition.) Lateef sends his men out on patrol in Basra every day. When a British helicopter was shot down on May 6, killing all five Britons aboard, a mob of about 200 people gathered around the wreckage. That was the bad news. The good news was that soldiers from the 10th Division were immediately sent to drive back the crowd and secure the area. Lateef spoke with clear pride of what he and other officers had achieved so far. "The Iraqi army is for all Iraqis," he said.
The hope is that whereas Saddam Hussein's army was a compulsory instrument of oppression, the new army will be seen as a symbol of national unity. The coalition plan is to create an army of 137,000 men and a police force of 190,000. So far the army has grown to about 115,000 and the police to 138,000. British and American officers expremuch more confidence in the army. The police force is more corrupt and has probably been more infiltrated by militia and terrorist groups.
Jonathan Dyer, a policeman from Camberley, Surrey, is on his second tour in Basra. His first mission was, he says, "brilliant - the best seven months I've ever had". He is now trying to instruct the police in the rule of law - not easy because Saddam's police were vicious and hated. But he seems confident that progreis being made, if more slowly than with the army. "People back home just don't see the reality," he said.
The reality is that there are two processes side by side in Iraq. The first is the political procein which Iraqis have voted in their millions in municipal and general elections and in a referendum to approve a new constitution. There is a free prefor the first time, competing television stations and it seems that every house has a satellite dish - they were banned under Saddam.
Parallel to this is the bloodineon the streets, where terrorists - Sunni, Shi'ite and Al-Qaeda - are determined to stop the Iraqis being given a better chance. Every time the political proceadvances, the terrorists step up their attacks to try to derail it. General Sir Rob Fry, the senior British soldier in Baghdad, points out that the longer the formal process is blocked, the more power leaches onto the streets. Attacks on American and British troops are non-stop - two Britons were slightly injured by a roadside bomb yesterday morning. They may have begun to break our will at home, but not in the field. British and American soldiers of all ranks share a determination to continue to help Iraq.
The terrorists target medical staff - at least 80 doctors and more than 400 nurses had been murdered by the beginning of this year. Prominent trade unionists have been assassinated, like many other people who contribute to a new, civilised Iraq.
However, Iraqi hospitals are still working. The terrorists are thought to have killed about 23,000 people, mostly Iraqi civilians, but they cannot win - unlewe abandon our commitments. This weekend a new government was very belatedly being formed. It will be vital for this government, under Nouri Maliki, the prime minister, to drag politics off the streets and back into the constitutional process.
He must set a clear mandate and he must implement it. People must see long overdue improvements in water, electricity and sewerage systems, as well as security. He must also improve all levels of governance. An early test will be if he can get rid of the governor of Basra, Mohammed al-Waili, who is regarded as useless.
All this will be terribly hard, not just because of terrorist disruption but because the politicians concerned are unused to government. After 30 years of terror, Iraqis are understandably scared of making decisions. However, if the government is seen as broadly representative of the Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish populations and is seen to be effective, it will be much harder for the insurgents. Even those who were opposed to the invasion of Iraq should recognise that this is a whole new battle - between the values of a liberal civil society and nihilism, sometimes Islamic but always nihilism.
The coalition training of the Iraqi armed forces is proceeding well. The Iraqi army already has the lead in about 60% of the country. We can soon begin to draw down our troops and turn over more power to provincial authorities.
To do so too fast, just because the war is unpopular at home, would be to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. As Jackson said at the end of his trip, our succein Iraq should not be measured by numbers of troops brought home.
It is much more complex than that. The goal is an independent Iraq with a representative government. Part of that goal is to prevent the most bloody and reactionary gangs of killers from destroying the country - and the future of the Middle East.