Toby Dodge: What happened to our obligation to Iraq?

A leading opponent of the war says that in pulling out, politicians and the British Army are colluding in a reckless betrayal


On Monday afternoon Gordon Brown announced a far-reaching policy change before the House of Commons. Attempting to regain the political momentum after a series of potentially disastrous blunders, the Prime Minister declared that British troops in Iraq would be reduced to 2,500 within six months.

The drawing down of British forces to little more than a symbolic presence is a central part of Brown's campaign to gain a renewed electoral mandate. He is desperately trying to put as much space as possible between himself and Tony Blair.

Jettisoning Blair's strategy for Iraq would allow Brown to ditch the most divisive issue in British politics for at least a decade. It would also distance him from the White House while George Bush was still in residence. In effect, the British Government's commitment to the Iraqi people given on the eve of the invasion in March 2003 has been sacrificed in October 2007, at the altar of Brown's election campaign. Given the domestic and international significance of Brown's announcement and the partisan strategy driving it, the response of the opposition in Parliament was strangely subdued.

David Cameron declared "the whole country will welcome the fact that more troops are coming home", adding that "there is clearly a limit to what outsiders are able to achieve". Sir Ming Campbell was even more robust, claiming that, "after four and a half years, Britain has more than fulfilled any moral obligation to the people of Iraq... our obligation now is to our young men and women in our armed forces".

Something approaching consensus appears to have broken out in Westminster and across Fleet Street. Ranging from those on the Trotskyite left who run the Stop the War coalition, all the way the through to the old Etonian leader of the Conservative Party, there is general agreement that little can be done for Iraq and that we should bring our troops home.

But this overlooks the facts on the ground. One does not have to look too far beyond the growing cosy consensus in Westminster to uncover the very disturbing reality about the lives of the people of Basra, Iraq's second city. Those, like myself, who have visited the region this year, or who have taken the time to interview the increasing numbers of Iraqi refugees fleeing the city, certainly do not see it as a success of a muscular intervention which now requires downgrading to "an over-watch" role. Instead it is a city dominated by criminal violence and militia death squads fighting over the spoils of oil smuggling and domination of a terrified population.

In Kate Clark's File on 4 programme on Radio 4, she described how secular professionals and intellectuals were being forced to flee the city by Iraq's "Shia Taliban". The globally respected International Crisis Group described Basra as a "case study of Iraq's multiple and multiplying forms of violence", where the local population has little choice but to seek protection from one of the rival groups and gangs fighting for control.

The violence in Basra, which exemplifies the violence elsewhere in Iraq, is not driven by sectarian difference or ancient hatred ignited by the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. The population of Basra is largely made up of Shia Muslims. The violence that now dominates the city was triggered by the invasion and exacerbated by mistakes made by British and American officials in its aftermath.

The coalition invaded Iraq with far fewer troops and resources to deliver on the promises of stability, prosperity and democracy given to the Iraqi people by George Bush and Tony Blair on the eve of war. The result is the violence that we are seeing now.

The militias and criminal gangs that terrorise Basra's population are a direct result of mistaken British policy in the city. They stepped into a political and security vacuum created by policy drafted in Whitehall. To argue, as Ming Campbell did in Parliament last week, that Britain has more than fulfilled any moral obligation to Iraq is to disregard totally the United Kingdom's direct responsibility for the situation on the ground today.

In drawing down the troops, Gordon Brown blithely attempts to forget the promises made by Tony Blair before the invasion. The consensus in Parliament that greeted last week's announcement mendaciously ignores the horror faced by ordinary residents of Basra every day; it colludes deliberately to forget the direct role that British policy played in creating the hell that is Basra today.

And the attitudes in Parliament are mirrored in the attitude of Britain's top military brass. In his extraordinary interview last year, the chief of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, claimed that the British "should get ourselves out sometime soon because our presence exacerbates the security problems". He went on explain how such a speedy withdrawal could be facilitated by an "aim for a lower ambition".

It is unclear if General Dannatt's current ambitions for Iraq have dropped so far as to encompass the ongoing anarchy in Basra. His outburst can partially be explained by his anger at the underfunding of the military and poor judgement in Downing Street that led the Army to increase its commitments in Afghanistan while still fighting in Iraq. Even so, it is hard to explain how a senior military figure can seek to blame the current situation, primarily caused by previous policy mistakes, on the continued presence of his own forces. Such curious reasoning may be understood in terms of the growing collusion between the British military and political elite to remove their troops, despite the costs.

The mismatch between the Government's interventionist ambitions and military funding has clearly caused a great deal of anger at the highest levels of the British armed forces. But that is no reason to use the good offices of the Daily Mail to intervene in policy debates over Iraq with some very curious analysis about causes of violence in Iraq.

As an academic who has studied Iraq for my entire career, I was vehemently against the decision to invade and have been repeatedly critical of very poor policy decisions taken since 2003. But the cosy consensus that now dominates Whitehall and Fleet Street is equally misguided and will, if anything, drive Iraq further into civil war. Pulling out of a country in the midst of civil war will not only exacerbate violence on the ground but will make solutions even harder to find. The only solution to the Iraq debacle is "multilateralisation", the increased role of the United Nations in the country.

But what statesman would commit troops to a UN peacekeeping force once the US and British armies have pulled out? British politicians have to realise they played a major role in driving Iraq towards civil war. They still have a major part to play in any solution. Declaring success and walking away as Iraq burns is both mendacious and reckless.

Dr Toby Dodge is an expert in Iraqi politics at Queen Mary College, University of London

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