IT COULD not have been more predictable or better planned. The British were the soft underbelly of the American occupation, the nice guys who didn’t wear helmets and patrolled on PC Plod bicycles through the souks of Basra.
No one would hurt the Brits, with their friendly public relations machine and all that experience from Northern Ireland which – when you come to think of it – might have warned them of yesterday’s attack. We, the British, always made a distinction between us and them – the “them” being the Americans – but failed to grasp that in Baghdad, the Iraqis did not recognise the difference. All the messages from the embryo resistance – all the statements from the ex-Baathists and the Shia clerics – talked about the “Anglo-American invasion” or about the “American and British occupiers”.
It wasn’t difficult to guess how the ambush was designed. The Americans are taking too many precautions now; they are surrounded by their tanks and armour, protecting their marble occupation palace, shooting down stone throwers with the abandon of Israeli troops. So why not go for the Americans’ soft-target allies?
Of course, there are the equally predictable reactions of horror. It was a “cowardly”, “despicable” attack, which is how we described all those hundreds of ambushes on British soldiers in Belfast and Armagh. In fact, that’s just how we described the attacks on British troops in Aden and Cyprus and Malaya, in 1920 Ireland, in Kenya and Palestine.
Because, whether or not Tony Blair realises it, we are playing once more the game of colonial occupiers – and now we are paying the price.
It was just the same in 1917. General Sir Stanley Maude proclaimed that his British invasion force had come to “liberate” the people of Iraq – not to conquer them – but within three years, his troops had been gunned down every bit as cruelly as the young British soldiers yesterday.
Hundreds of them still lie in the great North Gate military cemetery in Baghdad. By an appalling irony of history, this first attack on the British – the greatest against the occupation force since the invasion of Iraq last March – occurred only a few miles from the scene of the British First World War defeat at Kut al-Amara where an entire British Army, wasted by diseases, surrendered to the Ottoman Turks and was death-marched north to Anatolia.
How could they do this to us when we came to liberate them? That will become an inevitable theme in the aftermath of this attack. Guerrilla warfare, as the British know all too well, is a brutal form of conflict. It does not distinguish between “good” occupiers and “bad” occupiers, between Americans who shoot down the innocent and Tommy Atkins in his soft beret and his knowledge – doesn’t it go back to our own Bloody Sunday in 1972? – that when you kill the innocent, you will suffer for it.
It also, of course, raises two more questions. Weren’t those British soldiers sent to Iraq to find the weapons of mass destruction? And since there don’t appear to be any such weapons, why did they have to die yesterday?