Patrick Cockburn: Our troops had few friends in Basra

Related Topics

Britain's long campaign in Iraq achieved almost nothing. The 46,000 UK troops who took part in the initial invasion in 2003 helped to overthrow Saddam Hussein – but this would have happened even if they had stayed at home.

The decisive moment in Britain's intervention came on 24 June that year, when six soldiers were killed in the grim, dangerous Iraqi marsh town of Majar al-Kabir, a centre of resistance to Saddam. Local people were asking what British troops were doing using dogs to search for weapons in their houses. The killings revealed for the first time the dangers facing our forces in southern Iraq. All the people in the town were Shia Arabs who had suffered under Saddam. They welcomed his overthrow but did not want to be occupied by Britain, or anyone else. They saw UK forces as colonial occupiers, little different from the British armies that occupied Iraq in the First World War.

The British Army in Basra was never able to gain full control of the whole city. One intelligence officer who spent a long time in Basra said the problem for the Army there was that it had no real allies. "We used to patronise the Americans and say we had long experience of counter-insurgency gained in Malaya and Northern Ireland," he said. "But in those places we had the backing of a large part of the local population, while in Basra nobody really supported us."

For years, Tony Blair and a succession of defence ministers spoke of training Iraqi forces, but the central problem was not military expertise but loyalty. Many Iraqi police was in league with militias, either because they were paid or intimidated or for patriotic reasons. On one official British Government press tour, a supposedly pro-British police chief would only meet visiting journalists at night in a warehouse away from his station, and then only on condition that officers he worked with were not told he had done so.

British commanders generally had a much clearer picture than the Government of the quagmire in which they were landed. There was never any sign that Mr Blair took on board what was happening in Iraq. British generals were often openly critical of the massive use of force by the US Army, such as in the siege of Fallujah in 2004 when its artillery fired heavy shells into densely populated civilian areas. There was seldom any sign that American commanders took British reservations seriously.

Did the Iraqi government's surprise success in sending its army into Basra in March show that the British could have done the same thing earlier? Did British commanders exaggerate the strength of Shia militias? The answer is that Iraqi soldiers can do things in Iraq that British soldiers cannot because they are not foreign occupiers.

This is more than a question of local public opinion. It was Iran which mediated an agreement under which the Mehdi Army fighters loyal to the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr were stood down to allow the Iraqi army to take over their strongholds. Iran would not have done this if British forces alone had tried to fight their way into the city.

Britain did not gain anything from its intervention in Iraq, but neither did it lose very much apart from the young soldiers killed or maimed in a slow-burning and unwinnable guerrilla war. Above all, it was an unnecessary war.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Pentagon has suggested that, since the campaign started, some 10,000 Isis fighters in Iraq and Syria have been killed  

War with Isis: If the US wants to destroy the group, it will need to train Syrians and Iraqis

David Usborne
David Cameron gives a speech at a Tory party dinner  

In a time of austerity, should Tories be bidding £210,000 for a signed photo of the new Cabinet?

Simon Kelner
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most