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
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David Lloyd George The Easter Rising 1916
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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.