Patrick Cockburn: Ignominious end to futile exercise that cost the UK 168 lives

The withdrawal of British forces from Basra Palace, ahead of an expected full withdrawal from the city as early as next month, marks the beginning of the end of one of the most futile campaigns ever fought by the British Army.

Ostensibly, the British will be handing over control of Basra to Iraqi security forces. In reality, British soldiers control very little in Basra, and the Iraqi security forces are largely run by the Shia militias.

The British failure is almost total after four years of effort and the death of 168 personnel. "Basra's residents and militiamen view this not as an orderly withdrawal but rather as an ignominious defeat," says a report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "Today, the city is controlled by militias, seemingly more powerful and unconstrained than before."

The British military presence has been very limited since April this year, when Operation Sinbad, vaunted by the Ministry of Defence as a comparative success, ended. In the last four months the escalating attacks on British forces have shown the operation failed in its aim to curb the power of the militias.

The pullout will be a jolt for the US because it undermines its claim that it is at last making progress in establishing order in Iraq because Sunni tribes have turned against al-Qa'ida and because of its employment of more sophisticated tactics. In practice, the US controls very little of the nine Shia provinces south of Baghdad.

The British Army was never likely to be successful in southern Iraq in terms of establishing law and order under the control of the government in Baghdad. Claims that the British military could draw on counter-insurgency experience built up in Northern Ireland never made sense.

In Northern Ireland it had the support of the majority Protestant population. In Basra and the other three provinces where it was in command in southern Iraq the British forces had no reliable local allies.

The criticism of the lack of American preparation for the occupation by Sir Mike Jackson, the former head of the British Army, and Maj Gen Tim Ross, the most senior British officer in post-war planning, rather misses the point. Most Iraqis were glad to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but the majority opposed a post-war occupation. If the Americans and British had withdrawn immediately in April 2003 then there would have been no guerrilla war.

The US has held most power while officially supporting the Iraqi government because it did not want Saddam Hussein replaced by Shia religious parties with close ties to Iran. Given that Shia are 60 per cent of the Iraqi population this is probably inevitable.

Soon after the British arrival, on 24 June 2003, British troops learnt a bloody lesson about the limits of their authority when six military policemen were trapped in a police headquarters between Basra and al-Amara. I visited the grim little building where they had died a day later. Armed men were still milling around outside. A tribesman working for a leader who was supposedly on the British side, said: "We are just waiting for our religious leaders to issue a fatwa against the occupation and then we will fight. If we give up our weapons how can we fight them?"

The British line was that there were "rogue" policemen and, once they were eliminated, the Iraqi security forces would take command. In fact, the political parties and their mafia-like militias always controlled the institutions. When a young American reporter living in Basra bravely pointed this out in a comment article he was promptly murdered by the police. One militia leader was quoted as saying: "80 per cent of assassinations in 2006 were committed by individuals wearing police uniforms, carrying police guns and using police cars."

Could any of this have been avoided? At an early stage, when the British had a large measure of control, there was a plan to discipline the militias by putting them in uniform. This idea of turning poachers into gamekeepers simply corrupted the police.

The violence in Basra is not primarily against the occupation or over sectarian differences (the small Sunni minority has largely been driven out). The fighting has been and will be over local resources.

The fragile balance of power is dominated by three groups: Fadhila, which controls the Oil Protection Force; the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which dominates the intelligence service and police commando units, and The Mehdi Army, which runs much of the local police force, port authority and the Facilities Protection Force. One Iraqi truck driver said he had to bribe three different militia units stationed within a few kilometres of each other in order to proceed.

In terms of establishing an orderly government in Basra and a decent life for its people the British failure has been absolute.

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