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The True Extent of Britain’s Failure in Basra Reflects the Larger U.S. Disaster
Tony Blair has admitted what George Bush still desperately denies: defeat. Iraq is turning into one of the world’s bloodiest battlefields in which nobody is safe. Blind to this reality, The British prime minister said earlier this week that Britain could safely cut its forces in Iraq because the apparatus of the Iraqi government is growing stronger.
In fact the civil war is getting worse by the day. Food is short in parts of the country. A quarter of the population would starve without government rations. Many Iraqis are ill because their only drinking water comes from the highly polluted Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Nowhere in Mr Blair’s statement was any admission of regret for reducing Iraq to a wasteland from which 2 million people have fled and 1.5 million are displaced internally.
Nadia al-Mashadani, a Sunni woman with four children, was forced from her house in the Hurriya district of Baghdad under threat of death by Shia militiamen on December 25. She was not allowed to take any possessions and is living with her family in a small room in a school in a Sunni neighborhood. She told me: "They promised us freedom and now we find ourselves like slaves: no rights, no homes, no freedom, no democracy, and not enough strength to say a word." Like many Sunni she believed the US had deliberately fomented sectarian hatred in Iraq to keep control of the country.
Mr Blair’s description of Iraq might have been of a different country from that in which Mrs Mashadani is trying to survive. He dodged the question of why Britain can reduce its forces in Iraq below 5,000 by late summer at the same time as the US is sending a further 21,500 soldiers as reinforcements.
He stressed that the situation where British troops are based around Basra is very different from Baghdad and central Iraq where the bulk of US forces are concentrated.
The speed of the reduction in British forces in southern Iraq will be slower than many senior British officers had privately urged. Mr Blair said "the UK military presence will continue into 2008". But long before then almost all the remaining British forces will be located at Basra air base and act in support of Iraqi military and police units.
Mr Blair gave the impression that the presence of US and British forces is popular among Iraqis. In fact an opinion poll cited by the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton report of senior Democrats and Republicans in Washington showed that 61 per cent of Iraqis favour armed attacks on US and British forces.
Even as Mr Blair was speaking there were bitter divisions within Iraq over the alleged rape of a Sunni woman in Baghdad by three members of the Shia-dominated security forces last Sunday. The predominantly Shia government denounced the alleged rape victim, claimed she was lying and commended the three officers she accused of raping her. Although UN figures show that almost 3,000 Iraqis are murdered by sectarian killers every month, the alleged gang-rape has the capacity to move the country more deeply into a civil war.
Mr Blair painted a picture of Iraq in which political and economic progress is only being hampered by mindless terrorists. He claimed that the aim of these groups was "to prevent Iraq’s democracy from working". But one of the main problems is that the constitution and two elections in 2005 have embedded differences between Sunni, Shia and Kurds.
The Prime Minister said there were 130,000 soldiers in the Iraqi army and 135,000 in the police force. He showed only limited appreciation, however, of the extent to which these forces are allied to the Shia militias or the Sunni insurgents.
US government officials were putting on a brave face yesterday in reacting to the drawdown of British troops in Iraq. US spokesman still refer to "the coalition" but it is now a very small group of countries. The largest group after the British contingent is 2,300 soldiers from South Korea. Denmark announced yesterday that it would withdraw its 470 soldiers by August.
The government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is being torn apart by conflicting pressures from the US and its own Shia supporters. The US has considered forcing him out of office but any succeeding government might be closer to the US but would have even more limited popular support.
Meanwhile Mr Maliki has complained that, for all the coalition talk of respecting Iraqi sovereignty, he cannot move a company of soldiers without US permission.The partial British military withdrawal from southern Iraq announced by Tony Blair this week follows political and military failure, and is not because of any improvement in local security.
In a comment entitled "The British Defeat in Iraq" the well-known American analyst on Iraq, Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, asserts that British forces lost control of the situation in and around Basra by the second half of 2005.
Mr Cordesman says that while the British won some tactical clashes in Basra and Maysan province in 2004, that "did not stop Islamists from taking more local political power and controlling security at the neighborhood level when British troops were not present". As a result, southern Iraq has, in effect, long been under the control of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the so-called "Sadrist" factions.
Mr Blair said for three years Britain had worked to create, train and equip Iraqi Security Forces capable of taking on the security of the country themselves. But Mr Cordesman concludes: "The Iraqi forces that Britain helped create in the area were little more than an extension of Shia Islamist control by other means."
The British control of southern Iraq was precarious from the beginning. Its forces had neither experience of the areas in which they were operating nor reliable local allies. Like the Americans in Baghdad, they failed to stop the mass looting of Basra amid the fall of Saddam Hussein and never established law and order.
American and British officials never appeared to take on board the unpopularity of the occupation among Shia as well as Sunni Iraqis. Mr Blair even denies that the occupation was unpopular or a cause of armed resistance. But from the fall of Saddam Hussein, mounting anger against it provided an environment in which bigoted Sunni insurgents and often criminal Shia militias could flourish.
The British forces had a lesson in the dangers of provoking the heavily armed local population when six British military police were killed in Majar al-Kabir on June 24, 2003. During the uprising of Mehdi Army militia of Muqtada al-Sadr in 2004, British units were victorious in several bloody clashes in Amara, the capital of Maysan province.
But in the elections in January 2005, lauded by Mr Blair this week, SCIRI became the largest party in Basra followed by Fadhila, followers of the Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, the father of Muqtada al-Sadr. The latter’s supporters became the largest party in Maysan.
The British suffered political defeat in the provincial elections of 2005, and lost at the military level in autumn of the same year when increased attacks meant they they could operate only through armored patrols. Much-lauded military operations, such as "Corrode" in May 2006, did not alter the balance of forces.
Mr Cordesman’s gloomy conclusions about British defeat are confirmed by a study called "The Calm before the Storm: The British Experience in Southern Iraq" by Michael Knights and Ed Williams, published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Comparing the original British ambitions with present reality the paper concludes that "instead of a stable, united, law-abiding region with a representative government and police primacy, the deep south is unstable, factionalised, lawless, ruled as a kleptocracy and subject to militia primacy".
Local militias are often not only out of control of the Iraqi government, but of their supposed leaders in Baghdad. The big money earner for local factions is the diversion of oil and oil products, with the profits a continual source of rivalry and a cause of armed clashes. Mr Knights and Mr Williams say that control in the south is with a "well-armed political-criminal Mafiosi [who] have locked both the central government and the people out of power".
Could the British Army have pursued a different strategy? It has been accused of caving in to the militias. But it had little alternative because of the lack of any powerful local support. The theme of President Bush and Mr Blair since the invasion has been that they are training Iraqi forces.
Police and army number 265,000, but the problem is not training or equipment but lack of loyalty to the central government. Vicious though the militias and insurgents usually are, they have a legitimacy in the eyes of Iraqis which the government’s official forces lack. Periodic clean-ups like "Corrode" and "Sinbad" do not change this.
There is no doubt the deterioration in the situation is contrary to the rosy picture presented by Downing Street. Messrs Knights and Williams note: "By September 2006, British forces needed to deploy a convoy of Warrior armored vehicles to ferry police trainers to a single police station and deliver a consignment of toys to a nearby hospital." Some British army positions were being hit by more mortar bombs than anywhere else in Iraq. There was continual friction with local political factions.
Why is the British Army still in south Iraq and what good does it do there? The suspicion grows that Mr Blair did not withdraw them because to do so would be too gross an admission of failure and of soldiers’ lives uselessly lost. It would also have left the US embarrassingly bereft of allies. Reidar Visser, an expert on Basra, says after all the publicity about the British "soft" approach in Basra in 2003, local people began to notice that the soldiers were less and less in the streets and the militias were taking over. "This, in turn, created a situation where critics claim the sole remaining objective of the British forces in Iraq is to hold out and maintain a physical presence somewhere within the borders of the governorates in the south formally left under their control, while at the same minimising their own casualties.’ Mr Visser said.
In other words, British soldiers have stayed and died in southern Iraq, and will continue to do so, because Mr Blair finds it too embarrassing to end what has become a symbolic presence and withdraw them.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.