[Marxism] Failure of British occupation in Basra reflects larger US disaster
ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Sat Feb 24 08:03:39 MST 2007
February 23, 2007
"They Promised Us Freedom and Now We Find Ourselves the Slaves"
The True Extent of Britain's Failure in Basra Reflects the Larger U.S.
By PATRICK COCKBURN
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
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
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
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
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.
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