By Harry Cohen | The British in Basra are unpopular and mostly ineffective. The last survey of Basra residents by BBC Newsnight indicated that 86 per cent believe British troops have had a negative effect on the Iraqi province since 2003. More than half felt the troops presence had actually increased the overall level of militia violence over the past four years. Twelve per cent believed that British troops had made no difference at all. Only two per cent believed British troops had had a positive effect. And 83 per cent said they wanted British troops to leave Iraq without delay. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the British role, carried out at great cost, including of many lives.
Soon after becoming Prime Minister, Gordon Brown promised to reduce British troops in Iraq from 4,500 to 2,500. On 28 April, Defence Secretary Des Browne abandoned that promise in parliament.
The troops were also supposed to be no longer involved in day to day operations in the province and confined to their Basra airport base. That implied non-engagement has been undermined, as the troops gave support to the forces of the Iraqi government in their offensive against the forces of Moqtadr al Sadr.
Patrick Cockburn, The Independent’s well-respected, non-embedded, journalist in Iraq, pointed out that elections are due in about six months time and the Shias of Prime Minister Maliki’s faction are trying to gain advantage over the popular Shia faction of al Sadr. They are using force to do this and want to draw in the British in Basra.
The US are also spoiling for a fight. They are in the middle of their ‘surge’ in troop numbers. Very sensibly, al Sadr calculated he could wait them out and called a cease-fire. He then extended it. The US would like to goad him into a fight and are using the Maliki forces to do it. US troops have moved into the Basra area and have goaded UK forces into taking part too. The weak British government has caved into this pressure, but even if for a short while they back up one faction over another, they will remain largely ineffective.
Of course, the US has no respect for any of the Shias, or Sunnis either, and an understandable reading of their strategy since they replaced the secular government of Iraq with a religious-based Shia one, is to keep them at each others throats. The factions are well prepared to change alliances, at least temporarily according to circumstances. So the Sunnis too have quietened their opposition to the US.
Also perhaps it is unfair to call the British completely ineffective. In March, in Kuwait, the Basra Development Commission was launched. This is a ‘joint initiative’ of the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Barham Saleh, and British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. At the launch the governor of Basra, Mohammed al-Wa’ili said ‘Basra welcomes private sector investors’. As Basra province holds 80 per cent of Iraq’s oil reserves and is home to the country’s only deep sea port and trade routes to the Gulf, the private sector is likely to be primarily US or US allies and not Iraqi. The British helped with the drafting of the new oil law, and with this commission are moving along the take over of Iraq’s assets and the long-term expropriation of massive profits from them. In this way we are doing our bit for our US allies.
Britain’s Labour government, in effect, has one last chance to get out with a modicum of reason. The United Nations mandate, which currently authorises the US and British presence in Iraq, runs out at the end of this year. That mandate does not really legitimise the occupation as the US and Britain were charged with ensuring the security of the Iraqi people and facilitating humanitarian aid and economic investment. The coalition has totally failed on both counts. The commitment to leave should be required of the Labour government at every opportunity, and not just by the end of the year. Our presence serves no national or international interest. We do not want to fight for one side in a civil war or to try to give advantage to one side in Iraqi elections. Those purposes are not worth the life or health of another British soldier.
However the US has no intention of leaving when their UN mandate runs out. They are already negotiating a bilateral contract with their puppet, dependent government in Baghdad, to ‘supply security’. The US will, in effect, turn itself into a mercenary army of occupation. They will be securing their pay out by robbing Iraq of its resources. No wonder Republican presidential candidate John McCain, in answering a question about whether US troops would be in Iraq for 50 years, replied ‘make it a hundred’.
Nobel Prize Winner for Economics, Joseph Stiglitz, recently published his new book The Three Trillion Dollar War: The true cost of the Iraq conflict. At a meeting in Parliament he described it as a ‘war totally financed on the credit card’. It has been a factor in the current global economic crisis, he said. The high price of oil also owes its genesis to the Iraq war and its aftermath. The US has created this crisis and is calculating it will, over time, be in a powerful position by grabbing control of Iraq’s oil. This, though, is not just illegal by any recognised standard, but a formula for never-ending conflict in Iraq as its people fight a nationalist war of liberation.
Iraqis are already victims. As well as the dead and maimed, there are approximately two million widows with very little economic means, according to one respected charity. The four million refugees are a scandal the west studiously ignores. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has just published its report Five Years Later: a Hidden Crisis. In their letter to MPs the IRC state ‘The US led invasion of Iraq five years ago and its violent aftermath have produced one of the largest humanitarian crises of our time, yet the “Coalition of the Willing” has been mostly unwilling to own up to it and provide aid for the innocent bystanders’. It is of fundamental importance to get this matter discussed in parliament.