“Ignominious” British in Basra

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 were 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 took place in front of the world’s media which put an end to this myth making. 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 to 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 a 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, if one talks to most people in the nationalist community in Northern Ireland they 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, beyond which those which have been proven, 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 bombings during the years of UN sanctions, and that there was a cultural chasm between the British army and a Arab and largely Muslim people.

It was the events of September 19th 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. This 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 Center 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 the 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 events on September 19th 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 come to nought and have passed away without further details. Sheikh Hassan al-Zarqani, Moqtada al-Sadr’s spokesperson at the time was adamant that the SAS were planning on a black operation 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 remains an issue on 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 prisoner abuse in May 2003 at Camp Breadbasket near Basra. There was also the case of hotel worker Baha Mousa 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 well-made British film The Mark of Cain. British Captain Ken Masters, who was commander of the Royal Military Police’s Special Investigations Branch, charged with investigating allegations of mistreatment of Iraqi civilians by British soldiers was found hanged in his military accommodation in Basra on October 15th 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 Baha Mousa. Masters was also thought to have been involved in the investigation into the events of September 19. 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 was holed up in small area in the palace in Iraq’s second city, making them easy targets for urban guerrilla warfare. No amount of experience in Northern Ireland could stop the guerrilla ambushes and up to sixty mortar attacks being fired into the palace daily. Prospects for the British army at the airport appears to be no better. Although they are not in a tough urban environment as before, they remain sitting ducks for the mortars which have been fired there for some time.

British TV news has had to report deaths of its soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan on a near daily basis for the last year; 43 soldiers have been killed so far in 2007, nearly double the amount of all those killed in 2006. Meanwhile, it is no secret that the British have long considered the Iraqi police in Basra to be awash with militias who 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 the Mahdi Army to allow them a peaceful retreat. While Sadr and the 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 to 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 Ahmad al-Shabayni in an interview on Al-Jazeera TV was more ambiguous, denying that the 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 the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade, whom the Mahdi Army accused the British of working with in their fight with the Mahdi Army, will intensify now the British are no longer involved on the ground as they have hitherto have been.

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 ‘un-tamed’ southern Iraq right at the time when Bush is desperately trying to show that the occupation is achieving some success. However many see that it is the occupation that is on the run, and not the resistance. As for Brown’s alleged distancing from Bush, this maybe an indirect bonus for Brown arising from the British move in Basra, but in 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 Sir 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 therefore 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?

Sukant Chandan is London-based freelance journalist and political analyst. He runs two blogs, one of which is O.U.R.A.I.M. He can be contacted at: sukant.chandan@gmail.com. Read other articles by Sukant, or visit Sukant's website.

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  1. Michael Kenny said on September 19th, 2007 at 10:03am #

    The odd thing is that the “lesson of Northern Ireland” is that until the state party gives the insurgents the essential of what they want, the fight goes on and as soon as it gives them what they want, the fighting stops! Britain went into Northern Ireland to defend the Union of 1801 and ended up, 30 years and God know how many thousands of dead later, foisting upon those who support the Union the very people who were denounced either as terrorists or supporters of terorism. If Blair had learned the lesson of NI, British troops would never have gone anywhere near Iraq (or Afghanistan!).