Blair must define the role of our troops in Iraq

Not a word do we hear about British views on the current policy of engaging Muqtada Sadr
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The Independent Online

The death of a British soldier in Basra this week upsets, for the time being at least, any hope that the UK can hold to its policy of lying so low in Iraq as to be almost invisible. Indeed the policy - officially described as "avoiding confrontation" and responding only when attacked - seems to be to pretend we're not there at all.

The death of a British soldier in Basra this week upsets, for the time being at least, any hope that the UK can hold to its policy of lying so low in Iraq as to be almost invisible. Indeed the policy - officially described as "avoiding confrontation" and responding only when attacked - seems to be to pretend we're not there at all.

We're the major partner in the US-led coalition but not a word do we hear about our views on the current policy of engaging the forces of Muqtada Sadr. Admittedly it may be a battle commenced at the behest of the interim Iraqi government of Iyad Allawi as much as America. But do we, who are now being drawn into it, have a voice and if we do, what are we saying?

It's the same with the pursuit of the two Chalabis, Ahmed and Salem. Both have been long-term residents of Britain and both maintain close relations with the British intelligence and foreign services. What happens now if the Iraqi authorities seek the extradition of Salem Chalabi on charges of murder? Will we have Jack Straw repeating his Pinochet dance? We can't - not if we were honest - pretend that the Chalabis are nothing to do with us or that their lives won't be in danger if they go back.

It wasn't always like this, of course. We owe to the new autobiography of General Tommy Franks, US commander of the coalition forces in the invasion, the revelation that President Bush's decision to fly out to declare victory on the US aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln was in fact in answer (and no doubt competition) to a British plan to hold a victory parade for its returning troops. Franks had been told so over a desert tea, served out of china cups, by Major General Robert Brines, commander of the British 1st Armoured Division. "As the UK begins to rotate its troops," said General Brines, "our people in London are planning a victory parade. The troops appreciate that type of thing". The Americans were not planning any rotation (hence the ill feeling amongst the soldiers which has soured home morale ever since) so Franks told Donald Rumsfeld and out the President flew to the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare the war over, a statement he must have regretted ever since.

The British, of course, never did have their victory parade, a fact for which they must now be profoundly grateful. The troops, and their continued presence in southern Iraq, are commemorated by a discreet silence about their presence in Iraq, their military role defined by the avoidance of trouble. Given conditions in Iraq, and the political problems at home, it's an understandable, and not ineffective, policy. Iraq has rarely left the headlines, but Britain's part in it has.

Can that last? It depends partly on circumstances within Iraq. The British aim is to avoid what they regard as the mistake of the US forces and taking offensive action which makes them look like an occupying force. Instead they prefer to patrol but not to confront.

This is easier for the British than the Americans, who have the harder places to control and are much more deeply implicated in supporting Allawi. Muqtada Sadr will certainly try to suck in the British to a wider conflagration, but his resources are limited and his support in Basra unproven. The British Army may take further losses but so long as it acts with restraint, it should be able to keep its distance from events in Baghdad and Najaf.

On the other hand, Blair's electoral timescale is longer than Bush's. As Iraq moves towards the appointed deadline for elections by next January it may become much harder for Britain to act as if it had no part in events.

The interest of the extremists is in causing maximum disruption, forcing an excessive reaction by the occupying forces and increasing their own armed power. The interest of Allawi and the interim government lies in delaying if not actually stopping proper elections which could throw them out of power, especially if they happened on time. The demand of the populace, especially the Shia of Basra and the south, is for early elections which will see them into power as Iraq's majority. Baghdad's decision to act against Sadr is just the first preamble for the jostling, and battling, for position that will go on. There may be no place on the sidelines for the British.

This in turn must affect Tony Blair's hopes of moving political discussion in Britain away from the war and back on to the domestic agenda of services and the economy. The hope was always based on a misunderstanding by No 10. The substantial public resentment of the Prime Minister over the war did not arise from bad news from Iraq. It arose out of the sense of being deceived over the reasons for going to war. Only the sudden discovery of a cache of weapons of mass destruction together with the plans to launch them will alter public opinion on this issue.

Bad news from Iraq could increase the voters' resentment of Blair, especially if peoplefeel that British lives are being expended in support of a US occupation policy that is wrong-headed and an Iraqi population who really don't want us there any longer. The problem for Blair is that, short of triumphant and peaceful elections in Iraq before he goes to the polls in Britain, events in Iraq have little to offer on the upside. Silence will not be enough.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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