10 February 2007

On the road to disaster

The Times must be congratulated for its report today on the two attacks on the British Army in Basra yesterday, one on an Army convoy and the other on the Basra Palace base (pictured).

By contrast, the Telegraph devoted the bulk of its time and space to picking at the wound of the US A-10 "friendly fire" incident and, a long "soft focus" piece on the death of Second Lt Jonathan Bracho-Cooke, the last but one soldier to die in Iraq. It gave short shrift to the attack on the Land Rover, not even bothering to report the second of the attacks.

Meanwhile, Richard Beeston and Michael Evans, defence editor of The Times, were exploring the possible effects of the attacks on the hopes of bringing home thousands of troops within the next few months.

In their story, however, they also reveal that the two attacks yesterday not only left one soldier dead but ten wounded. In the attack on Basra Palace, seven troops were injured, two "very seriously", according to an official spokesman, as well as an Iraqi employee.

The Basra base, says the paper, "comes under almost daily attack, and commanders had been expecting a missile or rocket to be fired by the end of the week." The journalists add that the base is protected heavily by concrete blast walls and sandbags, adding: "It is rare for so many troops to be hurt by a single explosion."

Rare, it might be, but not that rare. Readers will recall our report on 19 January when six British soldiers had been wounded in a series of attacks against Basra Palace camp. That time the camp had come under fire three times during the night from a mixture of mortars, rockets and small arms. One soldier was said to have been seriously injured and the five others received lesser injuries.

This was subsequently raised in Parliament by Ann Winterton and again by Gerald Howarth, both of them reflecting the increasing awareness and concern that attacks on British bases are getting more frequent and more accurate. And it is these attacks which lead Beeston and Evans to conclude that the situation is so volatile that the expected troop withdrawal could be prejudiced.

Roger Beeston, in a separate article then offers a chilling account of the reality of patrolling the streets of Basra. He starts his piece, writing:

The young British soldier never saw where the shot came from. One moment he was patrolling the streets of a seemingly quiet residential neighbourhood in Basra, shaking hands with children and greeting old ladies. Locals even came up to assure his patrol that they supported the British presence and wanted them to stay. Minutes later the soldier, from The Rifles Regiment, was fighting for his life. A bullet had pierced his body armour and entered his chest…
When the troops arrived (in 2003), Beeston recalls, they could drive in relative safety through the streets in Land Rovers. Much of their work was on reconstruction and soldiers could be seen on their days off sunbathing or fishing the waters of the Shatt al-Arab waterway that runs past the two main British bases.

Now, Beeston's soldier informant had seen comrades shot, blown up by roadside bombs or forced to fight their way out of complex ambushes that can rage for two to three hours. Life, writes Beeston, has become so precarious for the British that all movement of personnel is conducted by helicopter and at night. The main palace complex, which houses soldiers and government officials, is permanently under siege from rockets and mortars. He continues:

Every building is protected by sandbags or blast-proof concrete walls. Helmets and body armour are compulsory. Diplomats are not allowed to leave the compound. Soldiers rarely venture beyond the perimeter in anything less conspicuous than a large armoured force, usually only deployed in battle. "Calling this a peacekeeping operation is ridiculous," said one officer. "This is war."

Even mundane missions are difficult, dangerous and costly. The patrol we joined, which led to the soldier being shot by a sniper, was providing protection for a small police training unit checking on an Iraqi police station. At the cost of one near fatality and the resources of dozens of troops and two helicopters, a local police commander received money to buy mattresses for his officers.
We are told by Beeston that British commanders and officials insist (on the record) that the job is worthwhile and that progress is being made in training the Iraqi security forces. This was endorsed by one of the more fatuous Telegraph reports and we get a diet of scarcely credible propaganda from the MoD, trying to reinforce that message.

But Beeston's picture of a garrison under siege only confirms the separate intelligence we have distilled from multiple sources over a considerable period (see, for instance, here, here and here).

Worryingly, we are told that the question of withdrawal timetables is the most hotly debated subject in Basra. Several soldiers in Iraq, Beeston writes, "questioned openly whether there was any point in being here at all … Most of the violence is directed at the British. If they were to withdraw, some argue, attacks would drop off immediately."

These soldiers have a point. Without an ongoing commitment to stay until stable government is installed, and without the resources and equipment to do a proper job, it is difficult to see what is being achieved by keeping the troops in Iraq, other than to give the increasingly bold insurgents some target practice.

But, without a British presence, it is almost certain that the Iranian-backed Militias would try to seize Basra and the valuable oil resources in the province. Most likely, they would succeed, thus undermining the whole of the Iraqi economy and destroying any chance the country might have of staging a sustained economic recovery.

What, therefore, seems unsustainable is the current policy of half-in, half out… maintaining a military presence but not giving the troops the tools to do an effective job. To continue in that vein, it seems to me, puts us on the road to disaster.