Leading article: 'We are not handing over a land of milk and honey'

Share

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the ceremony took place not in the city of Basra proper, but at the airport encampment to which the British had withdrawn three months earlier.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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
The Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has been dubbed ‘Bibi’s brain’  

Patrick Cockburn: Israel's propaganda machine is finally starting to misfire

Patrick Cockburn
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on