Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Time To Leave Iraq ?


Since late 2004 i have spent very little time on the streets of Iraq without either being escorted by the military or on an embed, which made made it incredibly difficult to see what the situation on the ground is really like, for normal Iraqi's. I mean isn't that the reason we were meant to be there in the first place, to give them a better future after toppling Saddams regime, trashing the infrastructure and not finding a single WMD ?


   Yet little of what is reported in the media seems to be focused on the Iraqi's themselves, the focus is predominantly on our own troops and the sacrifices they are making every day, and i feel we've lost track of what really matters here. Now before you shoot me down there are fantastic reporters and photographers out there that are working on the ground, and as security improves i'm sure there will be more. I'm one of the cowards who hasn't yet made it back to working as we all did in the old days , staying in hotels without the security of the western military, and miss them sorely.

  My last trip was indeed another embed, this time in southern Iraq, back to the centre of Basra, which only a year ago was deemed far too dangerous for the bulk of the British military to operate, resulting in their wholesale pull out to the airport.

  If this wasn't humiliating enough, in the spring the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sent the Iraqi army into Basra with U.S advisors without even a courtesy call to the British, and after intense fighting and heavy losses cleared out most of the criminal gangs and Iranian funded militias from the city.

  Although British trained Iraqi soldiers and their mentors did take part in the operation, their performance was relatively poor compared to that of the soldiers brought down from central Iraq mainly because they were understandably reluctant to fight in their own neighbourhoods.
 Since then security in Basra has reported to have improved markedly but having heard this said before by British Army Press officers over the last few years it was only when i was allowed to drive into town in the back of an Iraqi army pick up truck with no body armour or a Brit escort that i began to finally believe them. 



Although the statues of Iran-Iraq war veterans have now disapeared along the corniche and the old Sheraton Hotel is no more than an empty husk, i walked along the river front with my slightly nervous armed entourage and could finally see life returning to dare i say it, pre-war normality .The play parks were full of parents and their children, always a good sign, the street vendors were thriving and that evening the main shopping street was buzzing with activity. What a turnaround from last year.In fact the situation has improved enough for even our soldiers to return to the city in small numbers to continue training the Iraqi Police and Army, inconceivable a year ago. There is still a long way to go and many Iraqi's still don't feel that secure about there future but life does finally seem to be improving for them .
The surge in central Iraq masterminded by General Petreus appears to have paid off...so far. We'll have to wait and see what happens when the visibility of U.S troops on the streets of central Iraq decreases with the phased pull out over the next year to bases outside the cities.
If this succeeds, the goal of all western troops to be out of Iraq by 2011 could become a tangible reality... let's all keep our fingers crossed.

But what went wrong for the British in the south ? In the early days of the occupation it appeared as if they had the easier job in Basra and it's surrounds. They were dealing with a relatively welcoming Shia majority who saw them as liberators from Saddam's regime. On the other hand the Americans in Baghdad had what seemed to be a far more difficult job, Sunni extremist's, Foreign fighters and Secular tensions threatened to destroy any chance of a lasting peace in Iraq.
We often accused the U.S troops of being trigger happy and culturally insensitive, whilst they patrolled in full body armour and "eye pro", we went out in berets and smiles on our faces.
This wasn't entirely true and tended to suit the European view of Americans , fortunately i was able to work with U.S troops in the badlands of central Iraq and was on the whole impressed with only a few exceptions, including the handling of Falluja immediately after the invasion. On the other hand in Basra it was plain to see when unembedded that the British policy of a "softly softly" approach was allowing the militias and gangs to act with impunity. There has to be a balance when fighting an insurgency but did we get that balance right ? Perhaps we saved a lot of bloodshed with this policy, and one can argue that things seem to have worked out alright in the end, but quite possibly without much impact made by the British forces that were originally tasked with Basra's security. The Iraqi's in the end had to take matters into their own hands .

It's a terrible thing to say and i don't want to diminish in any way the sacrifice made by British troops who served in Iraq, they have done a fantastic job in incredibly difficulty circumstances, but i do feel that they were failed by the men leading them, be it their senior Commanding officers or the Politicians that decided to deploy our men to Iraq in the first place. Unlike the Americans we were never prepared to make the sort of commitment that was needed when it came to troop numbers to provide the security that Basra needed post war. Nor the skilled civilians that should have been provided by the FCO and Dfid to help the Iraqi's rebuild local government, it's institutions and infrastructure. Without these success was always going to be difficult. On  the numerous trips i made over the years to visit british troops in the south i always came home with the impression that they were attempting to do a job , somewhat reluctantly, without the assets that were needed . This meant that the best the British forces could hope to achieve was to keep the status quo and prevent Basra from boiling over into complete anarchy .
  
Hopefully questions will be asked about our time in Iraq and the policies made that hampered our efforts while memories are still fresh and before history is rewritten . There are still lessons to be learnt from Iraq.