British pullout stokes Iraq's southern fire
By Sami Moubayed
DAMASCUS - When then-US secretary of state James Baker suspended talks with the Palestinian Liberation Organization on June 20, 1990, he famously said, "Our telephone number is 202-456-1414. When you are serious about peace, call us."
This is what British Prime Minister Gordon Brown should have said to Iraqi leaders while visiting southern Iraq last week. After all, thanks to the indifference of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and a completely paralyzed central government in Baghdad, the British-controlled city of Basra has become a hotbed for militants and Islamic fundamentalists.
Instead, Brown chose to speak to his own countrymen - downplaying unquestionable failure in Iraq - saying, "Your war is over. We have managed now to get Iraq into a far better position." Brown's statement was far more realistic than the 2003 speech of President George W Bush, in which he said, "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended."
Brown did not say, however, that the British had succeeded. He literally could not say that because it would have been factually incorrect - very incorrect. He also did not say, however, that they had failed. British troops will remain in Basra, he claimed, training and assisting Iraqi authorities, until the spring of 2008. Their military role is over, however, as of mid-December.
Maliki had recommended a rapid two-week transfer of local authority in Basra, and Brown - eager to rid himself of the Iraqi burden - immediately said yes. Brown acknowledged, "Not that violence has ended, but we are able to move to provincial Iraqi control and that's thanks to everything you [British soldiers] have achieved."
Let's take a closer look at what all of this means for Brown, Bush and Iraq. Brown is effectively ending a three-year military operation that has cost the lives of over 170 British personnel. It has become very unpopular in Great Britain. Brown never endorsed the Iraqi adventure, but was always too afraid to strongly oppose it, but since coming to power in June has wants to bring it to an abrupt end.
What he has done is drop British forces in Iraq to about 2,500. Good news for the British - bad news for the White House. Shortly before the British announcement, Australia and Poland also said their forces will be leaving Iraq in 2008. Some in Washington are distressed, claiming they are being abandoned by their closest ally in Iraq. They see that Brown's announcement is a de facto defeat for Great Britain and coalition forces in the war-torn country.
It makes it very difficult for Bush to tell the American public, "Wait and see, I was right on Iraq." What makes life a little easier for the US president is that if the US loses Britain, it still has France. Tony Blair's departure from the premiership coincided with the rise of Nicolas Sarkozy, a man who is willing to bury all previous animosity between his predecessor Jacques Chirac and the White House.
But France is not an active player in Iraq. It does not have troops stationed in Iraq, and apart from a recent visit by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner to the country, the French have been absent from Iraqi affairs since 2003. And although a staunch ally of Washington, Sarkozy has already parted with the US on a variety of issues, primarily in his willingness to engage with Hezbollah (which the US claims is a "terrorist" organization) to advance presidential elections in Lebanon.
Brown hopes that any tension in British-US relations will be resolved when the Bush team leaves the White House in January 2009, almost certain that post-Bush America will be ruled by the Democrats, who are more opposed to the military adventure in Iraq. Additionally, Brown will now be able to call for early elections in 2009, without having the headache of explaining what British troops are doing and why they are dying in relatively large numbers in a war that according to most people in Britain does not concern them.
When Blair ordered 46,000 troops to Iraq in 2003 (one third of the army's land forces) many wondered whether these soldiers even knew where they were heading. Operation Telic, as it was called, was the largest operation of the British army since World War II. With time, it became increasingly difficult to justify what the British were doing. Saddam Hussein was arrested; it was clear that he had no weapons of mass destruction and was not cooperating with al-Qaeda. And territories under British control were not becoming a haven for democracy, as Bush and Blair had been saying since 2003.
The British will not part with the Americans completely, however, keeping a large number of civilian personnel in Iraq, hoping to transfer their mission from a military one into an economic and developmental one that can serve bilateral British-Iraqi relations. The fact that Iraqi forces in Basra are unable - by their own account - to take over from the British seems to mean little to Brown. General Jalil Khalaf, the police commander of Basra, confirmed that his men cannot deal with the security vacuum that will be left by the British, noting that recently 40 women were killed in Basra by Islamic fundamentalists for not adhering to Islamic dress code.
Their bodies were mutilated - and this while the British were there - shedding light on what will likely happen to Basra the minute the British leave. Even at the House of Commons in London, the Defense Select Committee expressed doubt over Brown's decision to pull out, fearing that a post-British Basra will become a city swarming with violence, "dominated by criminals and Shi'ite militias".
Brown promised a phased withdrawal on reaching 10 Downing Street this summer. In October, he announced that the 5,000 troops in Basra would be dramatically reduced by mid-2008, and completely returned by Christmas 2008. That was simultaneous with (and regardless of) relative US success in arming Sunni militias to combat al-Qaeda in al-Anbar province. Brown wants to portray himself as a patriot who is gravely concerned about the wellbeing of British troops in Iraq.
He reads polls well - and realizes that for the first time in 20 years the opposition Conservative Party is 11 points ahead of the Brown government. Earlier, Brown had been accused by British servicemen in Iraq of showing "contempt" for the British war effort, failing to provide his men with needed equipment and funds while serving as minister of finance. General Lord Guthrie, the former chief of defense staff, claimed that a success story in Basra "could have been made available earlier if adequate funding had been found sooner" adding, "Brown must take most of the blame."
Simultaneously, Anthony Seldon, in his biography of Blair, The Blair Effect, confirmed that when Brown was arguing with Blair
over the 2004 budget, he said, "You're giving away too much and being outrun by those military bastards!" By simply evacuating his troops from Iraq, with little regard to consequences, Brown hopes that this chapter of his career will be turned - for good.
But let's go back to when Blair started this phased withdrawal from Basra in February. He had been hinting at troop withdrawal since visiting Baghdad in May 2006. The US insisted then - and now - that this does not mean a change of strategy, nor does it spell failure for the international coalition in Iraq. American statesmen repeated that eventual withdrawal was what the West had in mind for Iraq ever since they got there in 2003.
National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe downplayed the importance of Blair's words at the time, saying they were not failure, but rather a "sign of success". Then, Blair commented on phased withdrawal, saying, "What all of this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be. But it does mean that the next chapter in Basra's history can be written by the Iraqis."
Let's try to imagine a post British-Basra; the second-largest city in Iraq with over 2.5 million inhabitants. Blair said that it was safer than Baghdad because the Iraqi capital was witnessing at the time what he labeled "an orgy of terrorism". True, the British in Basra did help reopen schools, equip hospitals, improve waterworks and secure oil platforms. Blair said that in Basra, there is "no Sunni insurgency, no al-Qaeda base, little Sunni or Shi'ite violence".
This is where both Blair and Brown made and are making a huge mistake. Blair purposely ignored all the violence that had taken place in Basra in 2006. Brown continues to deny the horrific situation there, claiming that the city - healed or not - will have to deal with its own affairs after the American and British messed it up in 2003.
The Basra that Brown wants to leave is one dominated by Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. His pictures are plastered on the walls and monuments of Basra, showing how powerful he really is. Alcohol is banned and veiling is becoming a must; those who refuse are arrested or beaten by religious militias who act as morality police squads. Merchants who sell alcohol have been beaten by the fundamentalists. Some have been even executed.
On April 21, 2004, a series of bombs ripped through the British-controlled city, killing several Sunnis, including a university professor. Armed men also stormed a police station, killing 11 policemen, and burning down two buildings. Sunnis have migrated en mass from Basra, fearing for their lives, and the British have been unable to protect them. A report by the US Department of State in 2006 on Basra described it saying, "Smuggling and criminal activity [continue] unabated. Intimidation attacks and assassination are common. Unemployment is high and economic development is hindered by weak government."
Supporters of the British prime minister point to a six-month truce pledged by Muqtada, saying there will be no violence in Basra. They claim that Muqtada is currently busy purging the Mahdi Army of devious and sectarian people who infiltrated because of their anti-US credentials since 2003. The new Mahdi Army will be one based on principle and character, where membership is based on strict criteria and recommendations of an earlier member in good standing. That is what Muqtada wants the world to believe, and it is very true - but for different reasons. Muqtada is conducting a facelift to make himself look nicer in Iraq. He is doing it to restructure, organize and empower himself to take over Basra.
Just because it is not carrying out military operations does not mean that the Mahdi Army is gone - or has become peaceful. On November 15 it reminded the world of how strong it is with a massive demonstration in Najaf, attended by tens of thousands of Sadrist supporters, commemorating the death of their master's father, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr.
The young cleric made a statement which was music to the ears of his supporters, saying: "I tell the evil Bush, leave our land, we do not need you or your armies. I tell the occupiers, you have your democracy and we have our Islam: get out of our land." He then unleashed a fiery war of words against everybody cooperating with the Americans, including Maliki, his Da'awa party and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the pro-Iranian and yet pro-American Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC).
Some analysts in Washington and Europe claim that Muqtada's "new vision" is being funded by Iran. They want to transform the Mahdi Army into another Hezbollah. These speculations surfaced in late 2006, published in The New Yorker by veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. He wrote that the Bush White House had pressured Israel to wage its war on Hezbollah because he was afraid of repeating the Hezbollah model in failed states like Iraq.
All conditions that enabled Hezbollah to emerge and remain independent of US policy since the 1980s can be found today in Iraq. That is why Bush was seemingly very interested in wiping out the Lebanese group during the Israeli war - a target that was never achieved. The Lebanese military group, after all, has been a tremendous success in Lebanese politics and has managed to uplift and protect the Shi'ites of Lebanon since its inception in 1982.
The situation in Iraq is very similar to that of the Lebanese civil war. There is chaos, anger, occupation, arms - plenty of them - indoctrination, Shi'ite loyalties, and a strong patron like Iran. Riad Kahwaji, an expert on Iranian affairs, said, "Iran is definitely interested in having its own proxy political and military forces in Iraq, just like Lebanon. All the indicators so far are that Iran has invested a great deal in the Mahdi Army."
A source close to the SIIC's Hakim, who in turn is very close to Iran, confirms that the Shi'ite leader received assurances from Tehran, at the highest level, that the Islamic Republic would not abandon the SIIC in favor of the Mahdi Army. Hakim and Muqtada have been at odds for generations over control of the Iraqi Shi'ite community. Muqtada's spokesman Salah al-Obeidi, based in Najaf, denied these rumors, saying that although Muqtada admires Hezbollah, he does not plan to transform his army into a mirror image of the Lebanese group.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.
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