After so deftly avoiding any Iraq inquiry at home, Tony Blair will be cursing his luck to have walked straight into one in Washington. His talks with President Bush were planned months ago: it was a ‘happy coincidence’ (as his spokesman said through gritted teeth) that it should coincide with publication of the long-awaited Baker report on Iraq. But for once, the Prime Minister is ahead of the Americans. He did not need a ten-month report to get moving: the British withdrawal has quietly begun.
The Americans were given no specific timetable for withdrawal in James Baker’s ‘which way now?’ report, but Britain’s was settled a fortnight ago. Of the four provinces under British control, the last one will be handed over to the Iraqi government in the spring. When withdrawal comes, I am told it will be total: we will not maintain so much as a garrison in Basra. When it comes to turning tail from Iraq, the US will not see Britain for dust.
To justify this, a form of doublethink is now taking root in the British government. There is the official version of events: namely, that Iraq’s army and police are growing in such numbers that we can soon hand over to them and let the country take its tentative steps towards stable democracy. Privately, however, Foreign Office and MoD officials admit that the ‘Iraqis’ to whom Britain will be handing over are Shiite militias, readying for a power struggle with each other that threatens to ignite a much wider conflagration.
As Mr Blair edges towards the departure lounge, the political mood is already turning. On Tuesday the Labour party elected as its parliamentary chairman Tony Lloyd, an anti-war rebel. He ousted Ann Clwyd, the Prime Minister’s special envoy to Iraq. As Whitehall prepares for the Brown era, officials speak with ever greater candour about how Iraq went wrong — and the problems Britain will be leaving behind. What follows is the real, if unofficial, version of events, as it has been made clear to me in private conversations.
The British mandate in Basra was never intended to last for three years. It was meant to be a mere stop gap that would last only until the Baghdad government reasserted control — and at first the strategy worked well. But the Baghdad reinforcements never arrived, and local Shiite militias spotted the power vacuum. They sent their men to sign up for the Iraqi police, which the army now believes is so deeply infiltrated that the only solution would be to disband the entire force and start again. There is absolutely no political will to do this.
So the de facto powers in the British section of Iraq are the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade, both of which are now under strong Iranian influence. One official tells me that the situation resembles Belfast in the 1970s: the paramilitaries in Basra are trusted more than the police. Our strategy has been to treat the Mahdi Army like the IRA, offering a stake in the political process if it disarms. But it shows little interest in partnership with a weak Baghdad government whose writ does not extend to the south of Iraq.
Moreover, the British army sees no prospect of the Mahdi Army disarming, or what the IRA called ‘decommissioning’. Nor is there an end in sight to the tit-for-tat violence that claims 180 lives a day in Iraq as rival Shiite gangs fight each other and the common Sunni enemy. The Foreign Office argues that this is not civil war because, technically, the Baghdad government is intact (if powerless) and the Iraqi army has a coherent existence (if a corrupt one). In any case, to acknowledge the reality of civil war would be to admit defeat in Basra. Politically, this is impossible.
I have spoken to no one who does not believe that Iraq will be partitioned into Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite areas. Mr Blair denies this passionately, but those close to him say it is all a matter of semantics. ‘The Iraqi constitution allows for some devolution,’ says one Cabinet member wryly. ‘There will perhaps be more devolution than we first envisaged.’ No military source denies that there will be ethnic cleansing. But all this, of course, cannot possibly be said in public as Britain prepares to leave Iraq.
This charade is expected to last a year at most. The MoD believes that the Americans will dissolve the Green Zone in Iraq — or hand it over to the national government — when its new embassy is built at the end of next year. Britain will be gone by then, unless Gordon Brown surprises his colleagues with a new blueprint.
And this, of course, is a huge question for those planning our Iraq policy: what would Mr Blair’s presumed successor do? ‘If Gordon doesn’t like something, he makes it well known,’ Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, recently told one of his officials. ‘So if he hasn’t protested, you can assume he’s happy.’ This is as much strategic direction as the MoD has to go on — for now.
The Foreign Office does not expect leadership from Margaret Beckett: successfully briefing her on a subject other than climate change is achievement enough. She recently requested that officials spell out the environmental implications of every policy brief submitted to her. Civil servants do as they are told, but in despair.
The issue which should command her attention is Saudi Arabia. In an astonishing announcement which elicited no significant media response, a Saudi military official called Nawaf Obaid declared last week that his country would enter Iraq if Britain and America left it in the hands of the Shiite militias. Rather than stand by and see their Sunni brethren massacred, the Saudis are prepared to re-arm Saddam’s old army and finish the task Britain shirked: routing the Mahdi Army. ‘To be sure, Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks — it could spark a regional war,’ said Obaid. ‘So be it. The consequences of inaction are far worse.’
And if Iran raises the stakes and develops its nuclear bomb? The Foreign Office, I am told, believes that Pakistan’s nuclear bomb was built with Saudi money on the condition that warheads can be sent down to Riyadh should they ever be needed. So the Saudis are one phone call away from the bomb — and squaring up to Shiite Iran, whose fanatical president sees the apocalypse as a welcome event. ‘Every country has an interest in avoiding a chaotic Iraq, including all of Iraq’s neighbours,’ concluded the Baker report. But Saudi Arabia, for one, is prepared to launch a third Iraq war.
While President Bush was talking down the impact of the Baker report, he flatly ruled out the idea of a quiet retreat. ‘This business about a graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all,’ he said. In London, officials reluctantly agree. Without the troop numbers needed to restore order, there are no good options left for Iraq: just ethnic cleansing, sectarian warfare and the spectre of a regional nuclear war.