BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) - When asked about security in southern Iraq after Britain’s 5,000 troops pull out, British commanders tend to trot out two words: “Mohan” and “Jalil”.
General Mohan al-Firaiji and Major-General Abdul-Jalil Khalaf are, respectively, the heads of the Iraqi army and the police force in southern Iraq, responsible for the safety of two million people in Basra and the surrounding province.
Sent down from Baghdad in June at the behest of the Iraqi government, “Mohan and Jalil” are the local supremos with many British hopes riding on them.
To an extent, the more success they have, the quicker Britain withdraws its troops, leaving the Americans behind five years after they invaded the country together.
“People make a big deal about General Mohan, but the fact is he has had an impact,” said Major Edward Wilson, who trains Iraqi soldiers who join up to Mohan’s force.
“A lot is down to leadership and he has re-invigorated that. He’s also got a close and fruitful relationship with Jalil, who is taking on corruption in the Iraqi police. Together they make a good team.”
Not a lot is known about either man, although both are said to have had security roles during Saddam Hussein’s time, before falling foul of the overthrown former president. They have known each other for many years and worked together in the past.
Mohan — who is said to be particularly close to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki — is seen as an enigmatic, forceful commander who doesn’t spend time messing around.
He meets frequently with British generals to hear what they have to say, and sometimes follows up on their suggestions, but just as often decides to do things his own way.
It was Mohan who, shortly after he was appointed, told British forces they had to leave downtown Basra, where 500 soldiers were based and had become a constant target of attack.
The soldiers were pulled out in early September. Since then, there has been a sharp decline in anti-British attacks, falling from around 60 a week in August to less than five a week now.
All Britain’s troops are now stationed at an airbase outside Basra, venturing into the city, 6 km (4 miles) to the east, only very occasionally and usually on their way elsewhere.
When they were still there, British commanders estimated that up to 90 percent of the violence in the city — a semi- lawless place, if not as edgy as Baghdad — was aimed at them.
While no one is saying the city is now 90 percent safer, statistics and informal polling reveal a sharp improvement in conditions, which has taken nearly everyone by surprise.
It has laid the ground for Britain to hand responsibility for Basra province to the Iraqis in mid-December, meaning all four southern provinces that Britain once oversaw will then be in Iraqi hands, paving the way for Britain to pull out.
No one can put their finger on exactly what Mohan, a Shi’ite Muslim who was previously responsible for security in the Shi’ite city of Kerbala, has done, but they are backing him strongly.
He now has command of nearly 30,000 men, almost half of them Iraqi soldiers and the rest Iraqi police, who Jalil looks after day-to-day while reporting to Mohan.
The concentration of his power could, in the long term, prove problematic, especially if his loyalties ever became divided, but the British military plays down the risk.
There are also concerns that the responsibility placed on two men has made them high-profile targets for assassination by the bands of Shi’ite militia and criminals operating in Basra.
Both have survived assassination attempts — Jalil five of them — and are now protected by a special guard and escorted in armored vehicles.
For Jalil the risks are greater because he has to work with the police, a force that has long been infiltrated by militias, is unpopular with the locals and has earned a reputation for corruption and rough justice.
“For me, Jalil has been particularly impressive because he’s had to fire a lot of people to root out the bad ones and get the guys working,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Michael O’Dwyer, whose battalion trains Iraqi forces. “He’s the great white hope.”
It’s only been five months since the two men were appointed, and barely two months since the security situation in Basra took a turn for the better. The risk remains that the city could slide back into in-fighting, violence and disorder.
It’s also the case that the political structure in Basra is weak, with the governor unpopular and until recently discredited even by the British, which leaves men with arms largely in charge in the run up to local elections expected next summer.
But still, senior British officers insist the “dynamic has changed” and are putting their money on “Mohan and Jalil”.