Tony Blair’s folly in taking Britain to war in Iraq is blood under the bridge, a blunder that cannot be reversed. But Blair made a second mistake that is less often discussed. He should have withdrawn British troops from southern Iraq as soon as it was clear that they were not serving a useful purpose. Instead, out of the same “strategic” motive of wanting to show George Bush that Britain was Washington’s most faithful ally, Blair has kept British forces long after he needed to. He was wrong to send British forces in. He is wrong not to take them out.
Every day the cost of this disastrous refusal becomes more serious, though it does not percolate through to the public at home with the urgency it deserves. Because of the greater volume of news, the British media send reporters to the Iraqi capital rather than Basra.
Lulled by the official – “off the record, old boy” – claim that British troops behave better than Americans, or that Basra is inhabited by Shias who welcomed Saddam Hussein’s overthrow (a view that British reporters embedded with UK troops often repeat), many people in the UK feel that life under British occupation is far better than in Baghdad.
But the rising death toll of British troops belies the notion of a peaceful region where they are loved. Seven were killed last week, the highest number in any week since the invasion three years ago. Five died in the downing of a helicopter, hit by ground fire according to police, although the army says an investigation is still going on. (Here there is a difference with the Americans. They usually take less time to confirm how an aircraft came down.)
With 111 dead, the rate of British fatalities is about the same as the American rate, given that the US has 20 times as many troops in Iraq. US forces mount large offensives more frequently than the British, so the drip-drip of British soldiers’ deaths by attrition is actually worse than in the US-occupied areas.
Iraqis resent British forces with a passion that surprises the troops themselves. “You think you know these people but you don’t,” exclaimed a British sergeant when he found young Iraqis excitedly gloating over the downed helicopter last week. His confusion is as old as colonialism, the shock of truth when occupiers realise the populace is not as grateful or contented as they thought.
Criminal kidnappings and sectarian murders take place in southern Iraq daily. There may not be as many killings of Sunnis by Shias and vice versa as in Baghdad, but that is because the Sunni population of Basra is smaller. Many Sunnis are fleeing. The casualties mainly stem from two Shia militias clashing for control of various districts of the city.
The Basra police are heavily infiltrated by militias, and there is a running argument between Basra’s governor, Muhammad Misbah al-Waeli, and the chiefs of the police and army, whom he accuses of being linked to the killers – the police chief survived a bomb attack yesterday. Majid al-Sari, a defence ministry adviser, says assassinations have surged to more than a dozen a day.
While British officials dispute his figures and reject the governor’s charges, they concede that there are frequent clashes whose motives they find hard to follow. For 10 weeks earlier this year the Basra authorities refused to cooperate with the British. The boycott ended a fortnight ago, but suspicions remain.
This is a far cry from January last year, when people in Basra voted for the provincial council for the first time as well as for a transitional government for Iraq as a whole. Violence was at a low level, and election day passed off with barely a shot or mortar fired. After the vote Blair had the perfect opportunity to withdraw Britain’s troops with the argument that Basra and the other southern provinces had freely chosen their own government and there was no insurgency for foreign troops to control.
On a learn-on-the-job trip to Basra this week Des Browne, the new defence secretary, made exactly that point, perhaps inadvertently. British troops had gone there, he said, “to allow the Iraqi people the right of self-determination against a background of a democratic process”. That has been achieved, yet Blair has decided he cannot leave Iraq before the Americans in case he seems to be deserting Bush.
Engineers, teachers and other secular professionals in Basra were not happy with the British record even then. They argued that the British authorities had bought calm in Basra by putting stability ahead of modernisation and allowing Islamist parties a free rein. But Britain’s laissez-faire policies helped to produce relative tranquillity. Since then the situation has worsened. Sectarian parties won the two elections, and are engaged in increasingly violent power struggles, which the British cannot – and should not try to – resolve. British forces, meanwhile, are coming under more frequent attack. Some British officials, and some Iraqis, claim Iran is behind the surge, but the spontaneous glee with which British military setbacks are greeted shows that, regardless of any Iranian role, many welcome resistance to the British. Contacted by phone this week, a range of people said the British were doing nothing about the disorder, so they should leave now.
The fact is that Britain has outstayed any welcome it had in some quarters for toppling Saddam. Like the Americans in Baghdad, the British in Basra are blamed for reconstruction failures, the power cuts in the crippling heat, massive unemployment and the horrors of lawless daily life.
In Mosul and Baghdad, Iraq’s other main cities, conditions for Iraqis also continue to worsen. People fear the growing toll of sectarian murders, criminal kidnappings, pervasive police corruption and political and economic hopelessness. Five months after the December elections an Iraqi government is only just being formed – and Iraqis have little faith in it. Sudden death is no longer confined to attacks on police stations or random car bombs, which people can try to avoid by keeping away from risky areas. Death squads now enter residential neighbourhoods. The risk of all-out civil war is ever present.
Recognising the futility of staying in Baghdad, Mosul and the north and west of Iraq is Bush’s responsibility. The American public’s growing disillusionment with the war may push him to reduce US troop numbers substantially after November’s mid-term elections, though he will avoid a complete withdrawal for fear that it will seem a defeat. Blair’s role is limited to southern Iraq. He will never be able to redeem his mistake in taking Britain into Bush’s war. He can lessen it by leaving Basra now.