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.
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.
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