28 November 2006

Taking the Michael

The Boy should be on his way home from Basra (at the time of writing). But there is still a curious lack of photographs of him coming out – one of them shown here, with the Boy inspecting (one presumes) captured weapons and ordnance.

Given that, like it not, the leader of the opposition visiting troops in Basra is a news event, one might have expected some mention on the MoD website. But you will search in vain.

Amusingly, until very recently it had been showing a photograph of the almost unknown Des Browne, defence secretary. Only when you look at the small print do you see that the picture was taken last May. Thus we see no reference to Cameron at all on the site, but an old photo of Browne. The MoD is definitely "taking the Michael" - a rather coy alternative term for removing the product of micturition.

Looking at the MoD photo archive also fails to yield a Cameron photograph, although there are plenty of the prime minister surrounded by smiling troops, And, with the picture agencies still showing photos of chancellor Brown in Basra last week, it looks like the Bs have it – three Bs together. I have posted a composite above.

Browne's presence on the MoD website is to mark his speech to Chatham House on Monday when he confirmed what foreign secretary Beckett had said the previous week in Parliament. It is odd how much attention the media have given to Browne when, what he was saying is not really news. However, for the record, the key part of his speech talked about a definite reduction of troops next year. He went on to say:

...I can tell you that by the end of next year I expect numbers of British forces in Iraq to be significantly lower - by a matter of thousands. The planning for this has been going on for some months, and I have been pressing our planners to look at all the options, to make sure we do not ask a single extra soldier to remain in Iraq longer than is necessary. In the end, of course, it must depend on conditions on the ground - including the level of threat and the capacity of the Iraqis to deal with it - and the final decision will be down to our commanders.
So there it is - we are not "cutting and running", we are just "withdrawing", first back to our bases and then out of the country altogether. One hopes that the Iraqis are able to tell the difference, although they too might have an Arabic phrase for "taking the Michael".

But someone else is taking the Michael - actually, a group. The picture here shows followers of radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr marching over the British, American and the Israeli flags in broad daylight in downtown Basra. They are members of the Shiite Mahdi Army and they are celebrating the anniversary of the death of Mohammad Mohammad Baqr al Sadar, the father of cleric Moqtada al Sadr.

This, of course, is happening just as Cameron is visiting Basra - except that he isn't. Ensconsed in the safety of Basra Air Station, he will see no more than you or me and will have to see scenes like this (and the one shown left) the same way we do, through agency pictures.

And the story they tell is stark - and makes a mockery of any idea that we will be handing Basra over to a civil authority that in any way represents the central government in Baghdad. This is the "army" that is going make happen Browne's prediction that, when British troops started to "draw down", the number of insurgent attacks may rise. There is no "may" about it and we are going to see some more flag-draped coffins before this charade is over.

Still, the Boy Cameron will be back tomorrow and he can tell us all about it - if there is anyone listening. Me, as befits my lowly station... I will be taking the Michael.