The true extent of Britain’s failure in Basra


Richard Moore

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Revealed: The true extent of Britain's failure in Basra
By Patrick Cockburn
Published: 23 February 2007

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, say specialists on Iraq.

In a comment entitled "The British Defeat in Iraq" the pre-eminent 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 neighbourhood 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 on 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 24 June 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.

Mr Cordesman says 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 armoured 
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 armoured 
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.

Other premiers' foreign policy misjudgements...
Lord Salisbury The Boer War 1899-1902

The discovery of gold in the two independent Boer republics of Transvaal and 
Orange Free State led Britain to flex its military muscle in South Africa. There
was enthusiastic support for the war back home in Britain, giving Salisbury a 
landslide in the 1900 general election. However, support began to wane as the 
war dragged on, and there was outrage at Britain's brutal tactics - although 
they led to the Boers' surrender in 1902. Despite the apparently successful 
outcome, it contributed in large part to the catastrophic defeat for the 
Conservatives in 1906, and signified the beginning of the end for the British 

David Lloyd George The Easter Rising 1916

Prior to the 1916 Easter Rising, there had been little appetite among the Irish 
for armed struggle. But the execution of the leaders of the uprising, and 
subsequent atrocities, most notably the 1921 Croke Park massacre, only served to
strengthen the resolve of those fighting for independence. What had begun as a 
small-scale armed rebellion escalated rapidly. Sinn Fein won 70 per cent of 
Irish seats in the 1918 general election, which was followed by an upsurge in 
violence, retaliations, a declaration of independence, a war of independence, 
and finally, in 1922, independence itself.

Anthony Eden The Suez Crisis, 1956

Covertly arranged in collusion with France and Israel, the mission was to regain
control of the Suez canal (nationalised by Egypt), and to overthrow the 
nationalist Nasser regime. While the initial outcome was successful from a 
military point of view, and with minimal British casualties, the perception that
Britain and France were seeking some kind of colonial resurgence did not sit 
well in Washington. Eisenhower made it clear to Eden that he did not want the 
operation to go ahead, and was willing to back it up with economic threats. Eden
caved in, ending his career and Britain's status as world superpower.

Robert Peel The First Anglo-Afghan War 1839-42

The mission to curb Russian influence by deposing Dost Mohammed and restoring 
former ruler Shoja Shah, was launched to strengthen British interests. The 
British took Kandahar, Ghazni and Kabul, captured Dost Mohammed and restored the
Shoja to the throne. Their job seemingly done, they withdrew, leaving a garrison
of troops and two envoys in Kabul. In 1841, however, there was an uprising, and 
the garrison was forced to surrender. The retreating British troops and 
civilians were massacred, bolstering Afghanistan's growing reputation as a 
graveyard for foreign armies.

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