All the spin in the world can't change the facts on the ground in Iraq, writes Sukant Chandan
The British government promoted its occupation of Basra as an exercise more sophisticated and intelligent than that conducted by its ally the US in Iraq. From the moment the British hunkered down in Basra after the March 2003 invasion of Iraq it seemed the British government and much of the mainstream media never missed a chance to boast of the softly-softly, hearts and minds approach of its occupation. We were assured that this had everything to do with the experience it had gained in previous British military exploits, particularly in Northern Ireland, while the US was still learning lessons from their historic defeat in Vietnam. This projection of the fair-playing Brits was repeated ad naseum until a string of dramatic events were reported in the world media which put an end to this mythmaking. Events such as prisoner and detainee abuse by British soldiers and SAS special forces undercover operations apparently designed to foment civil strife exposed the British army as no different from any other hostile military occupier. Everyone outside the Ministry of Defence and Cabinet agrees that the British "deployment" from Basra Palace to the airport eleven kilometres out of the city is an outright sign of defeat.
The British army reassured the world that its experience in Northern Ireland had equipped it with the necessary lessons to be able to deal with southern Iraq. However, most people in the nationalist community in Northern Ireland might say that on this basis the Iraqis could only look forward to the British army becoming the main cause of their escalating problems. What the British learnt from Ireland is the simple lessons of counter-insurgency whereby the national rights of the people occupied are taken away by brute force. To this day many Irish are demanding that the British government own up to the many cases where they have been involved in extra-judicial killings or colluded in murders by death-squads. If the British experience in Northern Ireland was a bloody one, then one could have easily predicted that their experience with the Iraqis would not be much better, especially if one considers that the Iraqis had already seen a British occupation in the early part of the twentieth century, frequent British bombings during the years of UN sanctions, and that there was a cultural chasm between the British army and an Arab and largely Muslim people.
It was the events of 19 September 2005 which firmly put to rest any notion that the British were playing fair with the Iraqi people. Two SAS men in Arab clothes and head dress were arrested by Iraqi police at a checkpoint after refusing to stop and opening fire from their civilian car which was packed with explosives. They were arrested by Iraqi police and detained which led to British tanks smashing down the prison wall where the SAS men were being held and releasing them, but not before incensed Iraqis attacked the British army with petrol bombs and stones. A British soldier was captured on film fleeing from his tank in flames from a petrol bomb and being pelted by rocks from the crowd, an image which symbolises maybe more than any other the British experience in Basra. The world could see that the British had failed in Iraq. Anthony Cordesman, a specialist on the Middle East and military affairs at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote recently that "the British decisively lost the south -- which produces over 90 per cent of government revenues and 70 per cent of Iraq's proven oil reserves -- more than two years ago."
September 2005 should have been the moment when the British realised that their attempt to train the Iraqi police force and win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people was an unmitigated failure. Unfortunately for countless Iraqis and the British soldiers, 168 killed so far, many more lives will be lost before Britain finally leaves Iraq.
In the fog of war, the 19 September events gave an insight into some of the types of covert operations being carried out by the occupying forces. But as suddenly as the dramatic events of SAS intrigue in Basra came to light, the burning questions asked by honest journalists passed away without any explanations. Sheikh Hassan Al-Zarqani, Moqtada Al-Sadr's spokesperson at the time, was adamant that the SAS was planning a "black op" against Iraqi civilians during a religious event to stoke-up sectarian strife. In light of the incessant civilian attacks in Iraq which go unclaimed by any resistance group, this is an area which urgently needs investigation but which hardly any journalists have looked into.
The notorious prisoner abuse by occupation forces in Iraq was not uniquely American, as three British soldiers were found guilty of this in May 2003 at Camp Breadbasket near Basra. There was also the case of hotel worker Baha Moussa who was beaten to death by British army personnel in September 2003. This culture of brutality and cover-ups in the army has been dramatised in the British film Mark of Cain. British Captain Ken Masters, who was commander of the Royal Military Police Special Investigations Branch, charged with investigating allegations of maltreatment of Iraqi civilians by British soldiers, was found hanged in his room in Basra on 15 October 2005. Masters had examined almost every single serious allegation of abuse of Iraqi civilians by British troops including the cases of the fusiliers convicted of abusing prisoners at Camp Breadbasket and a paratrooper who had been charged in connection with the death of Moussa. Masters was also thought to have been involved in the investigation into the events of 19 September. The British army stated that he was suffering from stress and could have been suicidal, although colleagues stated that this suicide of a married father of two who was due to return home within two weeks came as a shocking surprise.
The British army in Basra, Iraq's second city, was holed up in a small area in the palace in making troops easy targets for urban guerrilla warfare. No amount of experience in Northern Ireland could stop the guerrilla ambushes and the dozens of mortar attacks fired into Basra Palace daily. Prospects for the British army at the airport appear to be no better. Although they are not in a tough urban environment as before, they remain sitting ducks for mortars which have been fired there as well for some time.
The number of soldiers killed so far in 2007 is nearly double all of those killed in 2006. Meanwhile, it is no secret that the British have long considered the Iraqi police in Basra to be nearly completely infiltrated by militias which are now, according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, "seemingly more powerful and unconstrained than before."
A Mahdi Army commander detained by the British was released shortly before the retreat to the airport, seen by many as a deal brokered by the British with Al-Mahdi Army to allow them a peaceful retreat. While Sadr and Al-Mahdi Army have called the British retreat a victory mainly due to their force of arms, there are conflicting reports from the movement as to their military strategy towards the British at the airport. Some fighters from the Free Fighters of Al-Sadr state that they will continue with their armed struggle until their detained comrades are freed.
The British were no doubt relieved at Sadr's call for cessation of armed actions for a period up to six months to put his house in order. One of his spokespersons, Ahmed Al-Shabayni, in an interview on Al-Jazeera TV was more ambiguous, denying that Al-Mahdi Army is halting all operations against the occupation forces and stating that the occupation has no cause to be happy or relieved. Despite the different signals from Sadr's movement the British army retreated to the airport without harassment. One can be sure that the conflict between Al-Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade, whom Al-Mahdi Army accused the British of working with in their fight with Al-Mahdi Army, will intensify now that the British are no longer involved on the ground.
The British have known from the outset that the Iraqi police were saturated by militias hostile to their presence but decided to stay on in Basra due to their alliance and agreement with US political and military strategy. Some have speculated that Gordon Brown has decided to abandon Basra so as to put a distance between himself and Bush. Most commentators agree that the US is alarmed by this British move, which leaves them with an untamed southern Iraq right at a time when Bush is desperately trying to show that the occupation is achieving some success.
Many see that it is the occupation that is on the run, and not the resistance. As for Brown's alleged distancing from Bush, the "redeployment" maybe an indirect bonus for Brown, but in the words of a recent Financial Times article title, Brown is jumping from the frying pan that is Basra into the fire that is Afghanistan, where British and other NATO forces are faring no better against a resurgent Taliban. Perhaps Britain's most senior and respected military commander, General Richard Dannatt, has put things most honestly in arguing that Britain should be preparing for a wider "generational conflict" in facing "a strident Islamic shadow over the world and a global conflict of values and ideas".
Britain seems intent on continuing its course of military confrontation with the Islamic world. Is it any surprise that there are people from Basra to Helmand who feel that it is only the language of armed resistance that can enable them to knock any sense into the British?