22 November 2006

Moving to the end game

Foreign secretary (in name only) Margaret Beckett has announced in Parliament today that Britain could hand over control of Basra to the Iraq government in spring next year. That would be the next and penultimate stage in the retreat started in August, when al Amarah was abandoned to the militias - with entirely predictable results.

"The progress of our current operation in Basra gives us confidence that we may be able to achieve transition in that province ...at some point next spring," says Beckett, building on the claims at the end of October that the Army was close to reaching the "tipping point" in defeating the "insurgents".

At the time, we asked, "do we really look that stupid?" – and now we have an answer. More than stupidity though, it is perhaps that people don't care any more, one way or the other – and just want our troops out. And if it takes a little fiction - like we are winning the battle against the insurgents - to disguise our retreat… well, the government will do what it takes.

In the spring, then, we can see the Army pull back into Basra Air Station and Shaiba logistics base, abandoning its three main bases in the city: Basra Palace, the Shatt al-Arab Hotel and the Old State Building. These will be handed over to the Iraqi security services and then, most likely, ransacked by the militias. At that point, up to 3,000 of the 7,200 contingent will be returned home, some to be available for redeployment to Afghanistan.

The main function of the remainder will be to provide security for the road between Kuwait and the US zones, and the dock facilities at Umm Qasr, protecting the supply lines (and the escape route).

This will leave Basra and the rest of Shia-dominated southern Iraq to the tender mercies of the Iranian-backed militias and their fundamentalist rule, precipitating either civil war or further flight of secular Iraqis. Already, we are told, the meddling of agents of the Iranian Intelligence Ministry is so obvious that in Basra, when the residents want to give an address, "they use the office of the Iranian Intelligence ministry as a landmark."

It also explains why, despite continued and continuing attacks, on the back of the most recent violence, the British government is doing nothing about the humiliating situation where civilians have to be evacuated from Basra Palace.

Despite the availability of defence measures and counter-measures, it has no intention of investing in the equipment necessary to protect its bases, when it intends shortly to abandon them.

Like Lieutenant Colonel David Labouchere, who abandoned the Abu Naji base at al Amarah as a means of stopping the attacks, the British generally seem to have adopted a strategy of retreat as a means of preventing attack.

But it is not their presence, per se that seems to be the problem. According to Hakim al-Meyarhe, president of the Security Council in the elected Basra Governing Council, it is their behaviour. "British forces in Basra have made a lot of mistakes," he says, "and they continue to do so. They're arresting people inappropriately, storming into houses at night; raiding homes and families... They randomly arrest people without any permission from the government. These mistakes make people reactive (sic) negatively and violently."

"That's the reason for the mortar attacks we have here," al-Meyarhe says. "They are specifically directed against the British army interests, they're not attacks on the people of Basra."

With the British sending out such strong signals of its intentions, however, it is hardly surprising that the militias are already jockeying for position and, as we have seen, are launching a murderous campaign against those who are helping the occupiers, making it more difficult to control the region.

Most recently, the target has been the interpreters. At least 21 have been kidnapped and shot in head over the last month, their bodies dumped in different parts of the city. Another three are still missing. In a single mass killing, 17 interpreters were slain.

None of the Iraqis, be they police or army, want to share the fate of the Harkis, giving their loyalty to the occupiers, only to be slaughtered once they leave. Why should any Iraqi trust their lives to the British, who cannot even protect their own?

And so, inexorably, do we move to the end game, a sordid, tawdry example of failure and betrayal, our government abandoning its task unfinished, leaving the Iraqis to a fate unknown. But the worst of it is the spin, the attempt to disguise that unalterable fact, that we are running away. And, in so doing, what – as Charles Moore so eloquently put it – will we have gained?