The Retreat From Basra – by Patrick Cockburn

March 14, 2007

It is an admission of defeat. Iraq is turning into one
of the world’s bloodiest battlefields in which nobody is
safe. Blind to this reality, Tony Blair said yesterday
that Britain could safely cut its forces in Iraq because
the apparatus of the Iraqi government is growing stronger.

In fact the civil war is getting worse by the day. Food is
short in parts of the country. A quarter of the population
would starve without government rations. Many Iraqis are
ill because their only drinking water comes from the
highly polluted Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Nowhere in Mr. Blair’s statement was any admission of
regret for reducing Iraq to a wasteland from which 2
million people have fled and 1.5 million are displaced
internally.

Nadia al-Mashadani, a Sunni woman with four children, was
forced from her house in the Hurriya district of Baghdad
under threat of death by Shia militiamen on 25 December.
She was not allowed to take any possessions and is living
with her family in a small room in a school in a Sunni
neighbourhood. She told The Independent: “They promised us
freedom and now we find ourselves like slaves: no rights,
no homes, no freedom, no democracy, and not enough
strength to say a word.” Like many Sunni she believed the
US had deliberately fomented sectarian hatred in Iraq to
keep control of the country.

Mr. Blair’s description of Iraq might have been of a
different country from that in which Mrs. Mashadani is
trying to survive. He dodged the question of why Britain
can reduce its forces in Iraq below 5,000 by late summer
at the same time as the US is sending a further 21,500
soldiers as reinforcements.

He stressed that the situation where British troops are
based around Basra is very different from Baghdad and
central Iraq where the bulk of US forces are concentrated.

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The speed of the reduction in British forces in southern
Iraq will be slower than many senior British officers had
privately urged. Mr. Blair said “the UK military presence
will continue into 2008”. But long before then almost all
the remaining British forces will be located at Basra air
base and act in support of Iraqi military and police
units.

Mr Blair gave the impression that the presence of US and
British forces is popular among Iraqis. In fact an opinion
poll cited by the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton report of
senior Democrats and Republicans in Washington showed that
61 per cent of Iraqis favour armed attacks on US and
British forces.

Even as Mr Blair was speaking there were bitter divisions
within Iraq over the alleged rape of a Sunni woman in
Baghdad by three members of the Shia-dominated security
forces last Sunday. The predominantly Shia government
denounced the alleged rape victim, claimed she was lying
and commended the three officers she accused of raping
her. Although UN figures show that almost 3,000 Iraqis are
murdered by sectarian killers every month, the alleged
gang-rape has the capacity to move the country more deeply
into a civil war.

Mr Blair painted a picture of Iraq in which political
and economic progress is only being hampered by mindless
terrorists. He claimed that the aim of these groups was
“to prevent Iraq’s democracy from working”. But one of the
main problems is that the constitution and two elections
in 2005 have embedded differences between Sunni, Shia and
Kurds.

The Prime Minister said there were 130,000 soldiers in the
Iraqi army and 135,000 in the police force. He showed only
limited appreciation, however, of the extent to which
these forces are allied to the Shia militias or the Sunni
insurgents.

US government officials were putting on a brave face
yesterday in reacting to the drawdown of British troops in
Iraq. US spokesman still refer to “the coalition” but it
is now a very small group of countries. The largest group
after the British contingent is 2,300 soldiers from South
Korea. Denmark announced yesterday that it would withdraw
its 470 soldiers by August.

The government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is being
torn apart by conflicting pressures from the US and its
own Shia supporters. The US has considered forcing him out
of office but any succeeding government might be closer to
the US but would have limited popular support. Meanwhile
Mr. Maliki has complained that, for all the coalition talk
of respecting Iraqi sovereignty, he cannot move a company
of soldiers without US permission.

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