When British forces transferred control of Basra province to the Iraqi authorities yesterday, they did so with a precision of language and ceremonial perfected over more than half a century as a contracting colonial power. The commander who had led British troops into Basra four years ago led them out again. The Foreign Secretary represented the British government. Iraq's National Security Adviser thanked British forces and hailed a "victory for Iraq". Flags were raised and lowered; a memorandum was signed.
For all the fine words and formality, however, there was no concealing the uncomfortable and many-layered truth. This was not a victory, certainly not for the British, but not for the Iraqis either. For security reasons, the ceremony took place not in the city of Basra proper, but at the airport encampment to which the British had withdrawn three months earlier. The control that the British were handing over to the Iraqis was a flattering way to describe a security muddle contested by rival militias. Nor were the British actually leaving. They were merely moving from a combat to an "overwatch" function, which means that they will continue to train Iraqi forces and can be called upon to assist them, if needed.
Of course, it suits both sides to maintain the illusion of good order. Basra is the last of the four provinces for which British forces had responsibility. Its handover marks the formal conclusion of Britain's combat duties in Iraq and the latest stage in the end of one of the least happy chapters in relations between our two countries. It should allow up to half of the remaining British contingent to return home, if not by Christmas or the New Year, then by the less rigidly defined terminus of next spring.
While welcoming the reduction in the British military presence in Iraq a reduction that was accelerated after Gordon Brown took over as Prime Minister we would nonetheless note with regret and not a little chagrin the damage to which we have contributed. More than 170 British soldiers have died; the number of Iraqi deaths remains shamefully uncounted, but is many, many times more. There has been huge displacement of people. The security situation, while consistently better in the south than in central Iraq, remains to this day far from ideal. It is, the Foreign Secretary admitted with striking candour yesterday, "very, very violent". "We are not handing over a land of milk and honey."
There is no longer fighting in the streets, but a once relatively relaxed and cosmopolitan city is no longer that. The freedom of women, especially, has been curtailed, and becomes more restricted by the day. British troops may have acquitted themselves a few lamentable cases excepted with a professionalism that has been widely admired, but they were dispatched on a mission that was as impossible as it was misguided. It is only by scaling back the objectives that the task can be described as in any way accomplished.
But the cost goes beyond even the human losses and enduring insecurity. A poll conducted for the BBC found that more than 85 per cent of those asked felt that the effect of the British troop presence on the province had been negative; more than half believed that it had increased the level of militia violence. Only 2 per cent thought that it had been positive. This is a devastating verdict, relieved a little only by the finding that two thirds of those polled forecast that security would start to improve, once Iraqi forces took over responsibility.
With British troops no longer on the frontline anywhere in southern Iraq, that hope will now be tested. But it is a bleak legacy that this wholly unnecessary conflict leaves behind, and one that will not be erased for a very long time.