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    Volume 6 Issue 15 | April 20, 2007 |

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Food for Thought

Fear, Loathing (and Lies) in Basra

Farah Ghuznavi

In the weeks since the British withdrawal from Basra began, the hollowness of the UK government's rhetoric has become increasingly evident. Even at the time when the reduction in troops was announced in February, the normally silver-tongued Prime Minister was remarkably unconvincing in the rationale he put forward for the drawdown of troops.

That Iraq is in a complete mess must be evident to anyone with an IQ not in single figures. The civil war (let's call a spade a spade) is getting worse by the day; the latest news of factionalism and bloodshed meet with no more than a weary sigh from most of those following the news from that godforsaken country. The population of Iraq continues to suffer through an endless, agonising nightmare; food shortages are so severe that a quarter of the population would starve without government rations, and many Iraqis are ill from drinking polluted river water. An estimated 2 million people have fled the country, and a further 1.5 million have been internally displaced quite apart from the civilian death toll that runs into hundreds of thousands.

While much has been made of the fact that the British forces in Basra initially faced a very different situation than the US forces in Baghdad, an opinion poll cited by the recent bipartisan Baker-Hamilton report showed that 61% of Iraqis now favour armed attacks on US and British forces - leaving little doubt that any differences in the way the two main occupying forces are viewed is a thing of the past!

Therefore, the assertion by Mr Blair that troop reductions are justified because the situation in Basra is very different from other parts of the country (especially those where US forces have been based), the impression he tried to create that the presence of the occupying forces is popular among Iraqis, and his attempts to gloss over the very real problems of factionalism among the Iraqi security forces that the British are handing over to, have all been less than convincing...

Speaking with what has been described as his "characteristic elusive candour" (in English: a disarming, if deeply misleading appearance of honesty!), the British PM attempted to make the case for why UK troops would be withdrawing at a time when the American forces were being hugely strengthened - even though this begged the inevitable question of why British forces that "were not needed" in Basra should not be redeployed to more problematic parts of the country to assist their American allies.

In truth, it is hard to disagree with Steve Richards (writing in the UK Independent) when he asserts that the reasons provided for the exit from Basra are reminiscent of the lack of clarity evident in the Blair government's reasons for engaging in the war in the first place. After all, the causes cited by Mr Blair in the lead up to the war variously included the removal of Saddam's weapons, regime change, a desire to discourage the Americans from isolationism, a fear of breaking away from the US and a hope of establishing peace in the Middle East! Talk about covering all the bases...

Now, the reasons given by Mr Blair for withdrawing British troops are, to put it politely, multifaceted - if not downright contradictory! His comments included the implication that the troops were no longer needed (even as it was acknowledged that British troops were constantly under fire, the targets of rocket and mortar attacks on an almost daily basis in Basra); that the Iraqi security forces had been strengthened in order to take on additional responsibilities (although it was acknowledged that these forces suffered from corruption and sectarianism); and that the presence of British troops had contributed to improvements in the situation (although Mr Blair strangely did not challenge the leader of the Opposition, David Cameron, when he spoke of the serious deterioration in Basra over the last three years)!

Needless to say, the claims made by the Prime Minister were hard to reconcile with the findings of a paper published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which examined the British experience in southern Iraq and concluded 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". Hmmm, what doesn't add up here...?

Even some of the rhetoric employed by the normally "smooth as silk" Prime Minister lacked his usual glibness, degenerating at times into undeniable banality. Take for example his statement that "The desire for democracy is good. The desire to thwart it is evil." Mr Blair was clearly following the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle. Sadly for him, his audience was not quite as stupid, with one MP, Gerald Kaufman, pointing out that the despised Hamas government in Palestine is also in fact a democratically elected administration... But then, it seems that for Messrs Blair and Bush, democracy only counts if you LIKE the results of the election!

Perhaps his most fatuous assertion was when he spoke of the terrorists, kidnappers, bombers and militias in Iraq today, who have helped to create the situation that constitutes a full-scale civil war in all but name. According to Mr Blair,”The terrorists are to blame for the terror…We will beat them when we decide it's not our fault that they're doing this"! (UK Independent).

So whose fault is it, then?

It seems clear that Mr Blair is determined to ignore the fact that it is the coalition forces, in essence the US and Britain, that have created the enabling environment for pervasive terrorism and insecurity in Iraq. Among analysts, there has been a general consensus that Al-Qaida's adoption of Iraq as the front line in its battle against the West came well after the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Prior to that, there had been no foreign fighters in Iraq…! So perhaps it's a bit late to now imply that the reason for the occupation forces to be in Iraq is to fight the so-called "war on terror".

The coalition forces brought the "war on terror" to Iraq by invading the country in the first place, and providing the fanatics with a heavensent opportunity to gather support for their cause, arising out of the natural desire of the Iraqi people to be free of foreign occupiers... And it is important to remember that the insurgency in Iraq is not exclusively or even primarily driven by external forces, whatever coalition forces might wish to say about the involvement of Iran or Al-Qaida. There are enough power-hungry rival factions within the country to provide all the ingredients necessary for political chaos and violence to continue for an indefinite period.

The question of how the situation in Basra became what the pre-eminent American analyst on Iraq, Anthony Cordesman, describes in his comment entitled "The British Defeat in Iraq" does not have any simple answers. He asserts that the British forces lost control of the situation by the second half of 2005, resulting from a combination of factors that included the initial failure to prevent mass looting in Basra after Saddam's defeat; and the subsequent failure to establish law and order in the city, prevent the infiltration of sectarian elements into the Iraqi security forces and avoid large areas of the city falling into the hands of militia groups.

How bad the situation had become can be understood from an example provided in another report entitled "The Calm before the Storm: The British Experience in Southern in Iraq", that largely endorses the views of Mr Cordesman. The report asserts that well armed “political-criminal Mafiosi” had locked out both the central government and the people from power, and despite periodic cleanup attempts, the police and army remained factionalised, brutal and singularly unable to address the situation. As for the British forces, the authors of the report noted that by September 2006, British soldiers 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! (UK Independent)

In a horrendous example of militia action in Basra, a group of Shia gunmen attacked some students on a picnic whose "crime" was that there were young women and men present together there. The police stood by and watched while one gunman ripped off the blouse of a female student, and two university guards who attempted to assist the students were shot.

The militia filmed their attack, put it on CDs and distributed it at the market to teach the students a lesson. The female student whose grotesque humiliation was made so public, subsequently committed suicide. Another student who had been present there was Halima, who moved away from Basra in order to put the attack behind her. According to her, "They picked on the girl because they wanted to humiliate females…The police did nothing; we never saw the British. I could not stay in Basra after that."

Because the militias intimidated and assassinated journalists, much of what happened in Basra remained unpublicised, effectively allowing for the misleadingly rosy picture of Basra promoted by Mr Blair and his allies. After all, it is no secret that the British military establishment has long been pushing for the withdrawal of around 3000 troops from Iraq by summer. This recent political decision by the British government has only allowed troop reduction by about half of what the military chiefs had been arguing for.

It has been suggested that the real reason for this long delay in making the inevitable troop withdrawal in fact lies in Mr Blair's reluctance to leave his American allies high and dry, even when the British leadership were becoming increasingly aware of the deteriorating situation in the South. Indeed, the fear that others would begin to desert the sinking coalition appears to have been justified, with Denmark and Poland having already announced their pullout from Iraq, following the example of Italy, Spain, Ukraine, Japan and New Zealand. Romania, Lithuania and South Korea are also considering withdrawal, which would leave only Australia and Bulgaria standing by their coalition commitments.

Under these circumstances, the US - facing what is effectively abandonment from its closest ally, the UK - is trying to put a brave face on things, even as they remain concerned about whether the British withdrawal might lead to greater vulnerability for American supply lines, and allow the Iranians to channel more weapons across the porous border. Although the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice reiterated that "The coalition remains intact" and the neocon Vice President Dick Cheney insisted that Mr Blair's announcement was proof that "in parts of Iraq... things are going well" (perhaps he's referring to the heavily fortified green zone?), many Middle East experts dismissed the White House argument that Britain's troop withdrawal is a sign of success. According to Anthony Cordesman, "The British cuts... reflect the political reality that British forces "lost" the south more than a year ago" (UK Independent)

The fact is, if the UK government was following through the policy that it embarked upon four years ago, it would require British forces not to withdraw, but indeed to increase their numbers alongside the American troop surge, and see things through to the (bitter) end. That might not necessarily be the wisest thing to do, but presumably it would be more in line with Mr Blair's much vaunted focus on "values", than the current decision to turn tail, leaving the Iraqis to try and close the Pandora's Box so wilfully thrown open by their occupiers.

Sadly, the violence in Basra is likely to continue for some time; it's just that it won't be British soldiers going to their deaths anymore…

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