The Basra Debacle


The British campaign in Basra was undermined from the beginning to the end by lack of Iraqi support. The supposed aim of the occupation of Basra and southern Iraq was to allow time for a stable and democratically elected Iraqi government authority to be established with its own police and army forces on whom it could rely.

This was never likely to happen. The British occupation began with the killing of six British military policemen at Majar al-Kabir, south of Amara, in June 2003 after an ill-conducted search for arms.

Local people said they had never bowed their heads to Saddam Hussein and asked why they should now accept a foreign occupying power.

Tony Blair was endlessly claiming that the British forces were usefully engaged in training Iraqi security forces in the face of dogged resistance from “rogue” policemen.

But it was clear from early on that the rogues were, in effect, in charge.

British forces had to storm a police station to rescue their own soldiers who had been detained while spying in Arab clothing on the same station.

“As early as 2004, British influence was in steep decline,” says Reidar Visser, a leading academic specialist on Basra and southern Iraq.

“In other words, the recent pull-out itself was a largely symbolic affair: the British ceased exercising effective control of Basra a long time ago.”

Could the British have done any better?

The problem was the belief that because in 2003 the Iraqis were glad to be rid of Saddam Hussein, they would welcome a foreign occupation force.

The Sunni in central Iraq rose in rebellion in 2003 but the Shia, though willing to use the occupation, never accepted it as legitimate.

In fact, an increasing number supported armed resistance.

They saw the rhetoric of President George Bush and Mr Blair about installing democracy in Iraq as propaganda concealing a neocolonial adventure.

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.



Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).