of British forces from Basra Palace, ahead of an expected full
withdrawal from the city as early as next month, marks the beginning
of the end of one of the most futile campaigns ever fought by
the British Army.
the British will be handing over control of Basra to Iraqi security
forces. In reality, British soldiers control very little in Basra,
and the Iraqi security forces are largely run by the Shia militias.
failure is almost total after four years of effort and the death
of 168 personnel. "Basra's residents and militiamen view this
not as an orderly withdrawal but rather as an ignominious defeat,"
says a report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
"Today, the city is controlled by militias, seemingly more powerful
and unconstrained than before."
military presence has been very limited since April this year,
when Operation Sinbad, vaunted by the Ministry of Defense as a
comparative success, ended. In the last four months the escalating
attacks on British forces have shown the operation failed in its
aim to curb the power of the militias.
practice, the US controls very little of
the nine Shia provinces south of Baghdad.
will be a jolt for the US because it undermines its claim that
it is at last making progress in establishing order in Iraq because
Sunni tribes have turned against al-Qa'ida and because of its
employment of more sophisticated tactics. In practice, the US
controls very little of the nine Shia provinces south of Baghdad.
Army was never likely to be successful in southern Iraq in terms
of establishing law and order under the control of the government
in Baghdad. Claims that the British military could draw on counter-insurgency
experience built up in Northern Ireland never made sense.
Ireland it had the support of the majority Protestant population.
and the other three provinces where it was in command in southern
Iraq the British forces had no reliable local allies.
of the lack of American preparation for the occupation by Sir
Mike Jackson, the former head of the British Army, and Maj Gen
Tim Ross, the most senior British officer in post-war planning,
rather misses the point.
were glad to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but the majority opposed
a post-war occupation. If the Americans and British had withdrawn
immediately in April 2003 then there would have been no guerrilla
the British arrival, on 24 June 2003, British troops learnt a
bloody lesson about the limits of their authority when six military
policemen were trapped in a police headquarters between Basra
and al-Amara. I visited the grim little building where they had
died a day later. Armed men were still milling around outside.
A tribesman working for a leader who was supposedly on the British
side, said: "We are just waiting for our religious leaders to
issue a fatwa against the occupation and then we will fight. If
we give up our weapons how can we fight them?"
an early stage, when the British
had a large measure of control, there was
a plan to discipline the militias by
putting them in uniform. This idea of
turning poachers into gamekeepers
simply corrupted the police.
line was that there were "rogue" policemen and, once they were
eliminated, the Iraqi security forces would take command. In fact,
the political parties and their mafia-like militias always controlled
the institutions. When a young American reporter living in Basra
bravely pointed this out in a comment article he was promptly
murdered by the police. One militia leader was quoted as saying:
"80 per cent of assassinations in 2006 were committed by individuals
wearing police uniforms, carrying police guns and using police
of this have been avoided? At an early stage, when the British
had a large measure of control, there was a plan to discipline
the militias by putting them in uniform. This idea of turning
poachers into gamekeepers simply corrupted the police.
in Basra is not primarily against the occupation or over sectarian
differences (the small Sunni minority has largely been driven
out). The fighting has been and will be over local resources.
balance of power is dominated by three groups: Fadhila, which
controls the Oil Protection Force; the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council,
which dominates the intelligence service and police commando units,
and The Mehdi Army, which runs much of the local police force,
port authority and the Facilities Protection Force. One Iraqi
truck driver said he had to bribe three different militia units
stationed within a few kilometers of each other in order to proceed.
of establishing an orderly government in Basra and a decent life
for its people the British failure has been absolute.
Patrick Cockburn is the author of The Occupation: War, resistance
and daily life in Iraq (published by Verso), a finalist for the
National Book Critics' Circle Award for best non-fiction book
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