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Britain will ‘see the job through’ in Iraq. But ‘the job’ has changed completely

The perfect political U-turn is formed by an arc that curves so gradually that it is difficult to perceive any change of direction.

25 October 2006

3:25 PM

25 October 2006

3:25 PM

The perfect political U-turn is formed by an arc that curves so gradually that it is difficult to perceive any change of direction. Even now it is hard to pinpoint when, exactly, the British government gave up on Iraq. But in Westminster the mood change is discernible and the new direction clear. An inflection point has been reached where hope of a democratic, stable country — the original vision at the time of invasion — has been abandoned. The mission is now defined as handing over Iraq to the Iraqis, whether stable or not.

The pace is being set in Washington, as it was in the months before the invasion. American minds are focused by the mid-term elections next month, and the stance of the Bush administration on Iraq is changing at a pace with which the Blair government finds it hard to keep up. Only recently the Prime Minister was saying he will ‘stay the course’ in Iraq — yet last Monday the White House said the President has dropped the phrase and will never use it again. He admits that the course must change.

Britain is far more elegant in its execution of such about-turns. The military says it will ‘see the job to the end’: this formula remains but, crucially, the definition of ‘the job’ is changing. Once it was to achieve a liberal, democratic and prosperous Iraq. Now the definition of success is to get out and leave the Iraqis to whatever form of government they see fit.

The Blair U-turn on Iraq is visible in what is ignored rather than in what is said. His narrative still hinges on the struggle between Coalition troops and insurgents. Yet Iraq’s true plotline moved on a long time ago. In the British sector, the unspoken problem is that the new police owe loyalty not to Baghdad but to warring Shiite militias.

Two months ago, for example, much fanfare was made over the passing of Maysan province into Iraqi control. In fact, the local police there owed loyalty to the Badr brigade — and it had become seen as Badr territory. So last week the rival Mahdi army took Amara, the capital of Maysan, and the two groups have spent this week fighting. It is a small taste of the sectarian violence which we have every reason to believe will follow British withdrawal — yet none of this is acknowledged in London. In this way, stability has been quietly dropped as a goal.

Civil liberties were ditched some time ago. While Mr Blair boasted about the women freed from the burka in Afghanistan, he makes no mention of those in Basra who are routinely instructed to don the veil by Islamists who operate with the complicity of the religious groups now running the police. Off-licences have been shut down at gunpoint and bars literally bombed into closure. William Patey, until last August our ambassador to Baghdad, said before he left that he would be happy with theocracy in Iraq as long as it could be voted out.

Now, even this electoral lock is being quietly dropped. ‘What political system is put in place is a matter for the Iraqis,’ said Major-General Richard Shirreff, head of the multinational force in southern Iraq, on Monday. ‘I’m looking for governance that is adequate.’ With an exhausted force of just 7,200 whose Basra headquarters is mortared every night, he can hardly call for more. The US state department says it hears sharper cries of pain from British commanders: that they need to withdraw in a year and are ‘near breaking point’.

This is hardly contradicted in London. Kim Howells, the Foreign Office minister, has said the troop withdrawal will take place in a year — a judgment that cannot be informed by any claim or expectation of success. Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, did not contradict him. Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, has suggested that Iraq may well split into three ethnic countries: Kurds in the north, Shiites in the south and Sunnis in the middle. The Foreign Office is aware that such a Shiite state would soon become an Iranian satellite, and a powerful one if it captured the oilfields and Najaf — spiritual capital to the world’s 160 million Shiites. This would make Iran a Shiite superpower, and one abutting the Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia.

‘Imagine the Saudis’ reaction,’ one official told me. ‘If Iraq splits up, they find themselves sharing a border with what would be an Iranian protectorate. You have to question how much Mrs Beckett knows what she is talking about.’ The consensus in the Foreign Office is ‘not much’ — a point which, to its embarrassment, it has had to make to the US state department recently. But these prognoses — on partitioning Iraq, on the Shiite power balance and on the exhausted resources of the British military — are now hardening into orthodoxy in Whitehall.

Truly to pacify Iraq would require twice or three times the Coalition troop numbers — and no one, in London or Washington, is even discussing that. Gordon Brown’s silence throughout the Iraq debate has led the Ministry of Defence to guess (it can do no more) that the Chancellor would not resist early withdrawal should he succeed Mr Blair.

While much has been made in America of the Vietnam analogy and the President’s recent admission that the comparison has some force, British colonial history offers two stronger precedents. The first is Mountbatten’s partition of India, which cost 500,000 lives as ethnic tension between Muslims and Hindus drove 14 million to move either to or from the Muslim-dominated Pakistan. The same incendiary ingredients which set alight colonial India are present in Iraq today, as Sunni and Shiites stake out their territory.

But perhaps the better analogy is from the first time Britain promised to create in Iraq ‘a healthy body politic, guided and controlled by healthy public opinion’. This was in May 1920, and the original goals of stability, security and the protection of minorities were quietly dropped amid a Shiite insurgency and a political campaign for withdrawal in Westminster. The achievements of Iraq were exaggerated, and its real problems ignored, to allow for military withdrawal in 1927. The independent Iraq, it was assumed, would muddle along.

Precisely the same hope governs British policy today. History has repeated itself, but in an even shorter time. Now, as then, the political and military will to stay the course has been exhausted.

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