LONDON, April 11 (UPI) -- The first British forces involved in the Iraq war arrived back in Britain on Friday -- four RAF Tornado F3 fighters -- even as Iraq appeared to descend further into post-war chaos.
The British government, however, insisted that things weren't as bad as some in the media are making out and announced the pending departure from the Gulf area of a substantial number of naval and army support units.
Although British forces spokesman Colonel Chris Vernon, in Basra, said that lawlessness in that city and other areas of southern Iraq was making it impossible to deliver much-needed humanitarian aid and there was no announced departure of land forces in Iraq, Armed Forces minister Adam Ingram said in London that the situation there "is manageable."
"I don't accept some of this morning's (media) reports," he told a news conference at the Ministry of Defense. In particular, he objected to a British Broadcasting Corp. report from Baghdad that people in the city were "passing the first days of freedom in more fear than they have ever known before."
That can't be, he said, because Iraqis had lived in fear of Saddam Hussein's brutal regime for many years and thousands had been tortured and killed.
"Look back at any past conflict," he said. "This isn't the first regime that has suppressed and ruled by savagery and fear, and this isn't the first time that the euphoria of liberation is mixed with anger and revenge. We are seeing looting, much of it directed against regime figures and establishments."
While troops of 16 Air Assault Brigade are moving north to join up with U.S. Marines in the center of the country, British troops in Basra were reported to be stretched in controlling the city. In one incident Thursday a British patrol that encountered armed bank robbers at a bank came under fire from them. The patrol fired back, killing five Iraqis.
The situation has forced the government to send British Military Police to southern Iraq and decide whether to send more military police to the area. Col. Vernon confirmed that in the village of Safwan, near the Kuwait border, military police are trying to use locals to form an auxiliary police force.
But Ingram stressed that the government's view is to get the administration of Iraq into the hands of Iraqis as soon as possible, and the start must be to identify local community leaders and existing police structures.
"There must be a period of uncertainty in the minds of all of those people because many of them, probably all of them, were in the Baath Party," said Ingram. "But what we do understand is there were those who had to be members of that organization to get a job, and those who were willing to cooperate with Saddam Hussein in terms of his brutal regime. So separating that out has to be done to make sure that it is the right level of quality policing.
"There are some indications that on the ground the local community is beginning to get on top of some of those issues anyway and we may just find that pace of change surprising us all, and a pace of change for the better."
A meeting in Basra on Wednesday between British military commanders and some 15 local sheiks, business leaders and clerics was reported to have collapsed amid major disagreement over the involvement of some of those present in some of the worst of Saddam's excesses. The government has declined to identify any of those people it is dealing with.
Said Ingram: "There may well be questions within the community about those who take on the new leadership because they may appear to be tainted with the past because they have compromised with Saddam Hussein's regime. But the reality is that many people will have had to make compromises if they were trying to find those points of normality within their society that they were seeking to deliver.
"These are not easy issues and I don't think they are solved by interrogative approaches by the media saying 'well, now we have six names and we will tell you what these people are really like.' These are sensitive issues, the future of people are at stake here, and lurid headlines don't help the people of Iraq."
There are also strains over policing between the British and U.S. governments.
On Friday, British International Development Secretary Clare Short, a cabinet minister, told BBC radio that the situation in Baghdad was so desperate that Adm. Sir Michael Boyce, Chief of the Defense Staff, had intervened with Central Command's Gen. Tommy Franks to provide military security for two buildings occupied by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Neither Ingram nor West would comment on that, but West said it was "our overall assessment in southeast Iraq that there is not a humanitarian crisis. The infrastructure is largely intact, and indeed our (targeting) plan was to leave it intact...
"But of course, an awful lot of it was in a very, very poor state because the regime didn't look after it and wasn't focusing its resources in the right way. However, importation of food will be required by the end of this month, there is no doubt about that.
"The key issue is water. Now, most of the water plants under coalition control are working, a couple of them have reduced capacity. Where water is unavailable, we think most of it is because Iraqi forces, pro-Saddam forces, disabled power supplies before withdrawing, and that is actually where we have got the problems."
Recently, West spent three years as the chief of defense intelligence, and he said he was "absolutely convinced" Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. The key was to find the people who did the scientific work and reveal where the weapons were, he said.
He declined to comment on reports from British military sources that one of the aims of the current operation of British Paras to the north and east along the Iranian border is -- with some Iranian military cooperation - to search for chemical weapons stored there since the 1980s Iran-Iraq war.
The redeployment of some of the 45,000-strong British forces was described by Ingram as "by no means the beginning of a full scale reduction."
It included the frigates Marlborough and Liverpool and fleet auxiliary Grey Rover, which are going to the Far East for a pre-planned five-nation naval exercise that Ingram described as vital to securing British economic interests in the area, second only to those of the United States.
Leaving soon will be the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and its escorts, returning to Britain to work up its air wing of Sea Harriers and air defense helicopters. The Ark Royal came to the Gulf as an amphibious helicopter ship and lost two of its Sea King airborne early warning helicopters in a mid-air collision early in the war. Seven crewmen were killed.
One of two Tomahawk-firing submarines is already in Gibraltar on its way back to the United Kingdom, said West. At one point the two subs provided a quarter of all the Tomahawks available to the U.S.-led coalition.
Returning, too, is the Fleet auxiliary RFA Argus, used as a hospital ship.
Significantly, the situation in Iraq means the need for British combat capabilities to remain in Saudi Arabia has declined. It is expected that virtually all the RAF's Tornado F3 air defense fighters will return to Europe.