American commentators have become increasingly critical of the British performance in southern Iraq this year. The new CIA National Intelligence Estimate says “violence has escalated in Basra with the drawdown of coalition forces there”. Some experts have said the UK forces have left a lawless void of warring Shia militias and parties and Iranian meddling in Basra, Iraq’s second largest city. A few have even hinted that the US will have to take over and clean up the mess. Blaming the British for Basra is symptomatic of a larger search for scapegoats now underway in Washington as the political battle over “who lost Iraq?” gains momentum with the onset of the 2008 elections.
This analysis does the British Army a great disservice. British forces have performed honorably in Iraq. The problem has never been the troops: it is the mission they were sent to do and the poor leadership they have received. Given the few allies the United States has had in President Bush’s Mesopotamian adventure, it is counter-productive to criticise the only ally that sent a sizeable force and kept it there for four-plus years.
Bush has to bear the principal responsibility for the misguided decision to invade Iraq, the distortion of intelligence to justify it and the incompetent execution of the occupation that followed. Former Prime Minister Blair repeatedly urged Bush to take steps such as engaging Iran or advancing a serious and sustained Arab-Israeli peace process that would have helped in both Iraq and the region to create the conditions that would nurture stability.
British intelligence experts were quicker than their counterparts across the Atlantic to see the souring of the occupation in mid-2003 and warn of impending disaster. Bush and his team just did not listen.
Now we should see the instability in Basra and its adjoining southern Shia provinces for what it is: a harbinger of all of Iraq’s future. The breakdown of law and order in the south reflects the fundamental crisis of political unity and national identity among all Iraqis, not just the Shia in Basra. The inter-Shia fighting, the growing Iranian influence and presence, and the lack of any national political reconciliation process are not unique to the south: they are the reality of all Iraq. The number of troops is not the issue; the problem is that Iraq’s political leadership is divided, weak and preoccupied with their narrow sectarian agendas, leaving them vulnerable to Iranian mischief. We should have known all that from the start. To now blame the British or Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, does not address the grim reality.
Basra is home to two-thirds of Iraq’s oil wealth. If it is ungovernable and oil exports and revenues remain as low as they have since 2003, the country will be unable to recover the economic vitality that is critical to political stability. It is the only major port and key to the transport logistics of the nation and the occupation. It is the strategic prize. Ironically, Bush’s war will leave Basra much more in the orbit of Tehran than either London or Washington.
Now is the time for Bush and Brown to say explicitly that they intend to fully and completely withdraw all foreign forces from Iraq, that we neither desire any permanent military bases in the country, nor any special privileges in its oil industry. Again, we should have said that from the start rather than engage in a blame game. Then we should proceed to exit together in an orderly manner.