I've frequently cited and recommended the US Middle East scholar, Juan Cole, and in his short, sharp summation of Britain's withdrawal of many of its troops from Iraq, announced today, he doesn't disappoint:
"This is a rout, there should be no mistake. The fractious Shiite militias and tribes of Iraq's South have made it impossible for the British to stay. They already left Sadr-controlled Maysan province, as well as sleepy Muthanna. They moved the British consulate to the airport because they couldn't protect it in Basra. They are taking mortar and rocket fire at their bases every night. Raiding militia HQs has not resulted in any permanent change in the situation. Basra is dominated by 4 paramilitaries, who are fighting turf wars with one another and with the Iraqi government over oil smuggling rights.
Blair is not leaving Basra because the British mission has been accomplished. He is leaving because he has concluded that it cannot be, and that if he tries any further it will completely sink the Labor Party, perhaps for decades to come."
I would only add a note of caution to that last point. This is being very successfully spun in the UK, with little suggestion in any of the coverage I've seen thus far that British forces are not withdrawing at their own leisure.
Here in the UK we probably hear as much about the situation regarding US forces as we do our own. I have to admit that I've some guilt on that score myself. The fact is that the occupation is an American operation. We're complicit, but we're not in the driving seat (a "pillion passenger" as the Royal Institute for International Affairs put it), so one tends to home in on the activities, conduct and fate of US forces.
As a result of this, a lot of people in Britain simply won't recognise the picture that Cole describes. We don't see reports like this from the Washington Post on the front pages of our newspapers (nor perhaps even in our blogs) though we undoubtedly should. Here's what Cole's talking about:
"BAGHDAD, Aug. 24 -- British troops abandoned a major base in southern Iraq on Thursday ...... a move that anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called the first expulsion of U.S.-led coalition forces from an Iraqi urban center.
Maj. Charlie Burbridge, a British military spokesman, said the last of 1,200 troops left Camp Abu Naji, just outside Amarah, at noon Thursday, after several days of heavy mortar and rocket fire by a local militia, which local residents identified as the Sadr-controlled Mahdi Army.
The withdrawal sparked wide-scale looting at the base and then intense clashes late Thursday between Iraqi army forces guarding the camp and unknown attackers, a military intelligence official said. The volatile situation worsened when the 2nd Battalion of the Iraqi army's 4th Brigade mutinied and attacked a local military outpost, said the official, who spoke on condition that his name not be used.
Burbridge acknowledged that constant shelling of the base in Amarah by militia forces, including 17 mortar rounds fired in recent days that wounded three people, were part of the reason the camp closed.
"By no longer presenting a static target, we reduce the ability of the militias to strike us," he said. But he rejected Sadr's claim that the British had been defeated and pushed out of Amarah. "It's very difficult to claim a victory without causing significant casualties."
The mood was quite different in Amarah, where jubilant residents flocked to Sadr's office to offer their congratulations. Drivers in the street honked their car horns in celebration. Some prepared to take to the streets to rejoice.
"Today is a holiday in our province," said Abu Mustaffa, an unemployed 45-year-old from the city's al-Hussein district. "Thanks be to God!"
Abu Mustaffa said anger toward the British reached fever pitch in recent days after soldiers entered a mosque and arrested several local men. The provincial government is controlled by Sadr's movement, he said."
As I've pointed out many times, the majority of Iraqis want our armed forces to leave their country. For example, a poll conducted by the British Ministry of Defence in 2005, showed a majority - 67 per cent - believing that the occupation has made the security situation worse (less than one per cent believed it had improved matters) and 82 per cent "strongly opposed" to the presence of coalition troops. I rather doubt that those numbers have improved in the last 18 months.
Two things should be noted here before proceeding further: firstly - in terms of what will and will not help security - that Iraqis are rather better placed to judge the situation they are living through themselves than we are from our vantage point several thousand miles away; and secondly, that whatever we think is irrelevant in any case, since its what Iraqis want for Iraq that counts.
Given the dissonance between our proclaimed mission to bring the gift of democracy to Iraq and our explicit rejection of the population's clear wish for us to leave their country, it should come as no surprise that the same MoD poll found that 65 per cent of Iraqi citizens in Maysan province - one of the four provinces under British control at that time - believed that attacks against coalition forces were justified. Hence the expulsion from the base in Amarah, and the jubilant scenes thereafter. Only last Sunday, UK forces clashed with Iraqi militiamen armed with machine guns and RPGs in Basra. And last month, Royal Air Force Tornado jets provided cover for the US Air Force in what is increasingly looking like a massacre of Iraqi tribesmen in Najaf.
What's been announced today has little to do with spreading democracy or improving the general welfare of the people of Iraq (much less the "war on terror" or the long-forgotten weapons of mass destruction). The British government it seems has done what the US Republican senator George Aiken urged Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon to do during the Vietnam war (only to be ignored): declare victory and leave.
One final thought. If the US attacks Iran, as many senior figures in the US establishment fear, Iran responds asymmetrically via regional proxies and allies, as is widely expected, and southern Iraq goes up in flames, what will then happen to Blair's victorious exit? UK forces aren't leaving tomorrow. They will remain there at least til the end of George Bush's term in office.
Yesterday I said: "This is being very successfully spun in the UK, with little suggestion in any of the coverage I've seen thus far that British forces are not withdrawing at their own leisure."
In fairness, I reckoned without the excellent Patrick Cockburn of the Independent, whose front page story is entitled..
"The retreat from Basra
It is an admission of defeat. Iraq is turning into one of the world's bloodiest battlefields in which nobody is safe. Blind to this reality, Tony Blair said yesterday 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 25 December. She was not allowed to take any possessions and is living with her family in a small room in a school in a Sunni neighbourhood. She told The Independent: "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 country."
The LA Times also has some good coverage:
"The British military is approaching "operational failure," former defense staff chief Charles Guthrie warned this week.
"Because the British army is in essence fighting a far more intensive counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, there's been a realization that there has to be some sort of transfer of resources from Iraq to Afghanistan," said Clive Jones, a senior lecturer in Middle East politics at the University of Leeds, who has closely followed Britain's Iraq deployment."It's either that, or you risk in some ways losing both," he said. "It's the classic case of 'Let's declare victory and get out.' "
Vice President Dick Cheney called the reduction "an affirmation of the fact that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well," ...
But the Pentagon, in its most recent quarterly report to Congress, listed Basra as one of five cities outside Baghdad where violence remained "significant," and said the region was one of only two "not ready for transition" to Iraqi authorities
British bases in Basra regularly come under mortar fire. British troops engage in almost daily gunfights with militiamen. In recent months, the British all but evacuated their downtown base and moved to a more secure site on the grounds of the city's airport."
Its also worth noting that even this small reduction in forces has given ammunition to Bush's critics and put the White House on the back foot. It hints at the impact a full repudiation of our role in the war could have in Washington and thereby implies the political strength the White House gained from British support, begging the question: what if we hadn't joined the invasion in 2003? Probably the war would have gone ahead. But would Bush have won that narrow re-election the next year, isolated on the world stage and with the insurgency on the rise?
The New York Times reports that Bush administration officials were forced onto the defensive by yesterday's announcement:
"On Wednesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice denied suggestions that the British withdrawal plans meant the coalition forged to topple Saddam Hussein had crumbled
Democratic leaders in Congress saw it differently.
"By announcing its decision to redeploy troops from Iraq, the British government has acknowledged a reality that President Bush still stubbornly refuses to accept,” said Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, the majority leader. “There can be no purely military solution in Iraq.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, said, “the announcement by the British government confirms the doubts in the minds of the American people about the president’s decision to increase the number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.”"
Juan Cole: "The British retreat from Iraq brings peril for U.S. troops", at Salon.
Labels: Blair, Democracy, Iraq