Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Iraq : Blair Retreats From Basra

UK Army's Own Maps Give Lie To Blair's Claim Of "Remarkable Progress"

There are numerous reasons why UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has decided to begin withdrawing British troops from Iraq, but the "remarkable progress" he cites having been made in Basra is probably the least of them.

Residents of Basra are torn over the pullout. Some fear revenge attacks from the more brutal elements of the Iraqi Army and police force, others claim that the presence of UK troops made the violence only worse, encouraging attacks and insurgents. Others still claim that UK troops, or British undercover operatives, were behind bombings and assassinations.

The plan, as outlined by Tony Blair, is to withdraw almost 2000 British troops from Iraq within months, with more to leave by Christmas. A few thousand will remain through 2008, but analysts are predicting the Brits will slowly, but steadily, reduce overall numbers through next year.

The Americans and the Australian supporters of the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq are frantically trying to spin the announcement as a sign of progress and success, proposing that Basra is now calm and secure enough to be handed over to the Iraqi Army and police forces.

But the British are actually pulling out of the city back into their barracks, where they will mostly stay while the withdrawals take place.

US Vice President, Dick Cheney, was his usual acerbic self talking about troop withdrawals around the same time as Blair made his announcement :
I want you to know that the American people will not support a policy of retreat. We want to complete the mission, we want to get it done right, and we want to return with honour."
Likewise, the Australian prime minister, foreign minister and defence minister, claimed they were all aware of the coming announcement by Tony Blair, but spent most of the past week hammering any talk of withdrawing troops from Iraq "before the job is done."

Juan Cole claims the withdrawal of troops from Basra "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.

From the London Times :

On military charts, significant swaths of the southern city are security coded scarlet, for unsatisfactory. Other zones are marked green, satisfactory, or amber, between the two.

Levels of violence and anticoalition attacks are far lower in the Shia-dominated south than the Sunni triangle around Baghdad. But British casualties have been increasing over the last year, with more than ten soldiers killed and 60 injured since November.

Either way, the move will answer the question about whether the continuing presence of coalition troops in areas with no insurgency comparable to the north has been acting as a magnet for violence.

Followers of the radical Shia cleric Hojatoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr — whose Mahdi Army is blamed for much of the Islamist intimidation and accused by British forces of launching many of the bomb attacks on them — predicted that Basra would soon become calm.

“The militias and militant groups in these areas only fired their weapons at the occupier and when they go, all of the violence here will end,” Salam al-Maliki, a Sadrist official, said.

Shia leaders in Baghdad, eager to fix their grip on power, applauded the announcement. “The withdrawal is the wish of the Iraqi Government and all the political powers in the country,” Sami al-Askari, an MP close to the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, said.

But in Amara, the capital of Maysan province which Britain intends to hand over to Iraqi forces within months, Jabr al-Nuaimi, 40, said he felt the British had abandoned the city to the Mahdi army since withdrawing from bases around the city last September.

“The British troops left the city under pressure from the Mahdi army because there were a lot of mortars fired at their bases,” he told The Times.

“People hoped the British would control the city with a strong hand, but in reality all they cared about was protecting themselves.”

Although there is no Sunni-Shia carnage to compare with Baghdad, the Shia-dominated south has been torn by a cutthroat internal competition for power that has turned bloody. Since August, both Diwaniyah and Amara have been convulsed by clashes between the mainly Shia Iraqi Army, and Sadr’s militia.

Basra has seen the worst of the violence. Locals believe the drive-by shootings and assassinations have been fuelled by the struggle among the city’s Shia political parties for control of the Basra region’s oil reserves. Optimists hope that the Iraqi Army, while bedevilled by the same corruption, militia infiltration and political interference as other institutions, will inspire confidence more than the militia-dominat-ed police, in a country traditionally proud of its armed forces.

Patrick Cockburn writes in the UK Independent :

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.

Mr Blair gave the impression that the presence of US and British forces is popular among Iraqis. In fact an opinion poll cited by the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton report of senior Democrats and Republicans in Washington showed that 61 per cent of Iraqis favour armed attacks on US and British forces.

Mr Blair painted a picture of Iraq in which political and economic progress is only being hampered by mindless terrorists. He claimed that the aim of these groups was "to prevent Iraq's democracy from working". But one of the main problems is that the constitution and two elections in 2005 have embedded differences between Sunni, Shia and Kurds.

The Prime Minister said there were 130,000 soldiers in the Iraqi army and 135,000 in the police force. He showed only limited appreciation, however, of the extent to which these forces are allied to the Shia militias or the Sunni insurgents.

British, Australian and American government officials can spin the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq however they like, even calling it "a reduction of troops", but history will record these events as a defeat for the British in Iraq, and the final death knell for the unity of the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq.

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