The Shatt al-Arab hotel in Basra offers arguably the most wretched four-star accommodation in the Arab world. It has flushing toilets, but that is where the luxury ends. Its swimming pool is now a rubbish tip, and water has not passed through its taps for months. It has long been unclear to its only guests, the 1st Staffordshire Regiment, what purpose they serve by staying there other than to provide target practice for the militias who launch missiles into the building every day. Finally the army has wearied of this. There is no point to their remaining, so the troops are coming home.
The Prime Minister did not quite phrase it like this on Wednesday. The picture he painted of Basra was necessarily broad-brush — too much detail and his thesis would have fallen apart. His strategy has to be about ‘handing power back to the Iraqis’ — as if this, rather than bequeathing stability to liberated Iraq, was always the British aim. He did not mention the mass unemployment or the ethnic cleansing of the Sunnis. He did not admit that the missiles almost mockingly showered on British bases each day have been certified as Iranian.
The Prime Minister’s main claim is that Basra is free from the Sunni vs Shiite warfare which has engulfed the Americans around Baghdad. This much is true. But he is wrong to suggest there is no factionalism. The story in Basra is of rival Shiite political groups, each with an accompanying militia, which are fighting over villages, police squadrons and the proceeds of smuggling. They are the reason British troops can no longer patrol Basra in safety.
Walk into a Basra police station and you will see a poster declaring its fealty either to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) or Muqtada al-Sadr. It is a fair bet that the police operate with their respective militias, the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army. Once, the British hoped to crush these paramilitaries, but their opponents have turned out to be too well-armed. ‘Confronting them would bog us down there for years,’ I am told. ‘It would make a dignified withdrawal impossible.’ To declare a success in Basra, it is imperative not to look too closely at the city.
So when Mr Blair says that Basra is being ‘handed back to the Iraqis’ he is not quite providing the whole picture. The governor of Basra is a member of Fadella, a group which has gangsters rather than militias as its paramilitaries. Basra council is dominated by SCIRI and the streets of Basra are patrolled by the Mahdi Army. This makes Basra an explosive cocktail of rival militias, ready to do battle with each other and the poor souls who will eventually replace the British.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for the 10th Division of the Iraqi army, which will soon be taking over the Shatt al-Arab hotel and the Old State Building. In a few months they have risen from being a rabble to a half-decent fighting force, but they will be no match for the Mahdi Army, which last weekend fended off British troops in the slum town of Ha’aniya.
This is one of many incidents notified to the MoD but not reported to the outside world. Likewise, the discovery of 170 rockets outside a Basra police station last Monday, a clear indication that preparations are being made for full-blown sectarian battle. Ditto the discovery of 1,000 Iranian-registered missiles in an orchard outside the Shatt al-Arab on Tuesday. ‘The Iranians have their claws everywhere,’ says a Whitehall source. ‘They want a Basra hostile to the West and friendly to Tehran. And now that’s probably what they’ll get.’
Not even Mr Blair can plausibly argue that Basra is safe: if it were, he would have not been confined to the airport on his last visit. A Basra tourism chief was recently appointed, but his declaration that ‘there is a 70 to 80 per cent chance you will be OK’ is unlikely to attract many holidaymakers. Army commanders no longer see how they can help. This is the real logic behind the withdrawal: there are too few troops to oust the militias, so all they do is get fired upon. When they leave, the Shiite militias will be forced to deal with each other rather than blame the British. ‘It is time we took the stabilisers off the bicycle,’ I am told.
The Prime Minister’s claims about the success of Operation Sinbad — to root out militiamen from the police — is hopelessly exaggerated. The operation dealt with the most egregious examples, but British commanders have long accepted that the police are corrupt to the core. On Christmas Day, the Serious Crime Unit was found to have imprisoned and tortured dozens of Sunnis. This is why so much faith is being placed in the Iraqi 10th division: feeble, but at least not corrupted.
Within Whitehall, it is hoped that the departure of Mr Blair will allow a more honest assessment of Iraq. Gordon Brown will be better able to admit that the war ‘was not the best idea’, I am told, and will be in a position to describe the conflict as ‘sectarian war’ if not civil war (a phrase Mr Blair finds politically impossible to utter).
Yet the Chancellor shows little appreciation of, or interest in, the complexity of the problem he is about to inherit. Staff in No. 10 laugh when he refers to Shiites and ‘Sue Nyes’ rather than Sunnis (Ms Nye being one of his closest allies). He has little intention of growing more acquainted with them. His forthcoming spending review, I am told, will reject Mr Blair’s recent plea that defence spending should allow the British military to be ‘war fighters as well as peacekeepers’.
The Prime Minister did not always see Britain’s role thus. In a speech he made ten years ago (which has, remarkably, not been dug up since) he envisaged exactly the reverse. ‘Mine is the first generation able to contemplate the possibility that we may live our entire lives without going to war or sending our children to war,’ he said, watched by President Chirac. ‘That is a prize beyond value.’
These are not words he will wish to dwell upon as he attempts to draw a line under British occupation of Iraq. Nor will he want to consider the Foreign Office’s assessment that things will get worse in Basra before they get better. The phased withdrawal from Basra is a tacit admission that British troops may have set the apparatus in place for eventual peace and security but were, in the end, unable to deliver it. This is a task which those in Basra will now be left to complete on their own.