As Basra slid towards hell, Blair looked the other way

It’s a mistake to focus on the dodgy dossier, says Fraser Nelson. Blair’s real crime was to invade Iraq with no strategy, no understanding of the Islamist factions and no qualms about leaving Iraqis to the mercy of death squads

27 January 2010

It’s a mistake to focus on the dodgy dossier, says Fraser Nelson. Blair’s real crime was to invade Iraq with no strategy, no understanding of the Islamist factions and no qualms about leaving Iraqis to the mercy of death squads

There has always been a faction of the Labour party that wanted Tony Blair in the dock for the Iraq war — no matter how pointless it would be. This was the sole purpose of the Chilcot inquiry. Gordon Brown agreed to it simply to assuage his backbenchers, and the whole exercise was intended to be more a mischievous distraction than an inquisition. But almost by accident, the inquiry has exposed the real scandal of Iraq: the appalling mismanagement of the war and the defeat of the British army, which left the people of Basra to the death squads.

The WMD have become weapons of mass distraction. Mr Blair spent years answering questions about the case for war in Iraq, but he has answered far too few questions about the conduct of that war. No British journalist was based in the British-controlled south of Iraq, and so information about the situation there was sparse. For a politician wishing to construct a false narrative of progress, the circumstances were ideal. Had it not been for the Chilcot inquiry, the scale of the tragedy of Basra might never have come to light.

The problems should have been clear from the offset. As we now know from the Chilcot inquiry, Clare Short’s Department for International Development was unable to draw a plan for the reconstruction of Basra as it was deliberately kept out of the loop. The reason? Short was not trusted by the Blair circle, as Alastair Campbell admitted in his evidence. So DFID, from the outset, had no strategy — and Basra suffered as a result of the government’s factionalism.

Power was handed to Iraqis at breakneck speed. The militiamen found that if they stood in a queue, they were given guns and a badge and a police station to run. No one attempted to stop them when they turned these stations into command posts for their respective groups, loyal not to the state but to the various militia leaders. The British soldiers were instructed not to care, as long as they kept on recruiting and allowed Blair to boast about how many people had signed up to the army and military.

By July 2005, it was clear that the Islamist factions — banned under Saddam’s secular dictatorship — were running Basra. A New York Times reporter was staggered at what he saw. ‘Fearing to appear like colonial occupiers, the British avoid any hint of ideological indoctrination… When I asked British troops if the security sector reform strategy included measures to encourage cadets to identify with the national government rather than their neighbourhood mosque, I received polite shrugs: not our job, mate…’ Shortly afterwards, the journalist was killed by militia men using a government car.

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But the troops could, by then, do little more than stand aside. The Chilcot inquiry was told that, three years after the invasion, Britain lacked the manpower to do anything positive with Basra. Lt Gen. Sir Richard Shirreff, a former commander of British troops in southern Iraq, told the committee that, ‘In May 2006, the single battalion commander responsible for a city of 1.3 million told me he could put fewer than 200 soldiers on the ground. Compare that with West Belfast in the late 1970s when there was a brigade on the ground.’

As Sir Richard said, the security vacuum was bound to be filled: ‘The result of all that was what I call a “cycle of insecurity”. No security meant no reconstruction. It meant a loss of consent. The militia filled that gap and, effectively, the militia controlled the city.’

No general who has so far given evidence to the Chilcot inquiry has been able to claim that Basra improved. ‘In the early stages I was able to walk through the city, eat in a restaurant, walk through the soukh, no problem at all,’ said Gen. Reith, a former commander of the multinational division in Basra. Gen. Andrew Stewart, who also commanded the multinational division in Iraq, told the inquiry: ‘Life was getting worse for the Shia under us, not better. That was a real issue.’

Just how much worse Basra had become is something that no British person can testify to: but a few crime figures give an indication. In the first six months of 2007, some 18 barbers were murdered for shaving off beards. Between July and September of that year, 42 women were murdered for violating sharia. Often their mutilated bodies would be found with notes from the death squads. The warning signs had been there for years. In the spring of 2005, more than 20 civilians were dragged from their homes and summarily executed by the police. The Basra police chief readily admitted to anyone who would listen that three quarters of his force were militiamen but that he couldn’t fire them.

Britain’s policy was to ask the police to tackle the militias. This failed, because by night many of the Iraqi police were the militias. Police forces in the British sector were twice as big as they should have been, as the militias all demanded that their members be badged up. After the British withdrew from the city, the police took to abducting and ransoming Iraqi soldiers. But still ministers claimed that the transition was working. It was wilful neglect.

On Christmas Day of 2006, the 19th Light Brigade raided an Iraqi police station and found dozens of political prisoners with crushed hands and feet. It was described by ministers as a great blow against the militias, but it was a sign that things in Basra had swung full circle. The barbarism of Saddam had at this point been replaced by that barbarism of the death squads and their proxies. But while Saddam’s crimes had been used to justify the invasion, the new crimes were being ignored. The best Mr Blair thought he could do was to cut a deal with the death squads.

Jon Day, a former MoD policy director, told the committee that talks with the al-Sadr militias opened in the spring of 2007. ‘As a result of this dialogue, a series of — I think I prefer to use the word “understandings” were reached with core elements of the Sadrist JAM militias in Basra.’ In return for control, the Sadrists ceased shelling British troops: rocket attacks on the bases in Basra fell from around 1,300 in July to only 20 such attacks in October. This was, at least, a metric to report back to London: spun as a drop in ‘violence’. This is the ‘false proxy’, a standard tool of Labour spin. The falling number of attacks on troops was used as a proxy for security in the city.

In evidence to the inquiry, the army said they were trying Northern Ireland tactics: to pacify the militias by involving them in government, as they had pacified Sinn Fein. (But there was a crucial difference. In Ulster, this had been done after the British army and the RUC had shown the provos that they could not win militarily.) In Baghdad, the increasingly impatient Iraqi Prime Minister was drawing up a different approach for handling the militias: kill their leaders, and run them out of town. In March 2008 he did just that: personally leading an invasion of the city backed by American military called the Charge of the Knights. Basra — abandoned by the British — had to be liberated by American arms and Iraqi endeavour.

I visited the city a few weeks afterwards, accompanying Des Browne, then Defence Secretary. He said that he wanted to be able to have tea in Basra, as a symbol of its return to peace. It was as if Britain could somehow claim credit for the new security situation. Even to have tea, the military had to close down every street within half a mile of the café. I spoke to a local who had some English. ‘You British must feel ashamed of what you did here,’ he said — more in sympathy than in anger. ‘Now, you must go.’

one of this was lost on the military. I saw a piece of graffiti in the toilets which reflected the troops’ despair. ‘Been off base yet?’ it asked. ‘Deserve a medal?’ They had come to liberate a city from dictatorship, a cause for which 120 servicemen and women gave their lives. And yet they were cooped up inside an air base, being shelled by militias. The mission had changed: to furnish Mr Blair, and later Mr Brown, with a narrative of success so he could mislead parliament about Basra and pretend that the mission had been accomplished, rather than recklessly abandoned.

In US military circles, that the British were defeated in southern Iraq is taken as a given. One of General Petraeus’s closest advisers, David Kilcullen, has declared that ‘the British army was defeated in the field in southern Iraq’. Another, Peter Mansoor, wrote a piece for the British Army Journal on what Britain should learn from its ‘failure in Basra’. So, a war that was designed — at least in part — to strengthen the special relationship has actually weakened it, by making the Americans doubt Britain’s military utility.

Mr Blair’s intervention in Iraq — which I supported at the time — can now be seen as a calamity. As Basra slid towards hell, Blair looked the other way. Our failing strategy was never reassessed. Our defeat was a disaster not just for the people who lived under the terror which it unleashed, but for the morale of our armed forces and Britain’s reputation in the world. Such a display of military failure, and abject short-termism, can only encourage our enemies — leaving the world a more dangerous place. The lies were the least of it. The tragedy of Basra was Blair’s real crime.

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  • Ian E

    So, Mr Nelson, are you saying that it was no crime to take the nation to war on an outright lie? I cannot agree – that, to me, constitutes High Treason – reneging on what is surely the highest and most sacred responsibility of a Prime Minister. I never trusted Blair on anything, I was highly dubious about the war, but I never thought a Prime Minister could lie over such an issue. I am now older, wiser, but even more disgusted with politicians than I could ever have believed possible!

  • Billy Blofeld


    Blair is guilty of both War Crimes and also failing to have any strategy.

    He needs to be tried in court – Chilcot is just a distraction.

  • Yam Yam

    The folly of Basra could stand as a epitaph for the whole New Labour ‘project’, be it regarding education, health, law and order, the economy – you name it: apropos Blair’s election campaign song, spin a few statistics to claim that things have only got better whilst a more thorough probing quickly reveals that they have actually got worse.

  • donkeyhoatey

    As to war criminality, my suspicions were first aroused when bombs were blithely ordered to fall on serb grannies and their infant charges. I didn’t need to wait for Iraq(when we seemed to have more right to resume the war (started by iraq invading kuwait) for 14 breaches of the terms of the UN armistice; not least in the light of a permanent Security Council member declaring openly in advance it would veto any second resolution ‘en toute circonstance'(having first secured oil advantages – heads of terms were signed – for itself) thus thwarting debate and the due process of international law).
    Once asked to define protofascism (ok then: socialism minus marxism plus nationalism and an insistence on one’s own youth, freshness, novelty..); I replied I knew it when I saw it and I seemed, since 1997, to see more of it with every passing day.
    Time we all realised politicians feel entitled, nay bound, to fool us for our own good. Too many of us fooled ourselves first – and kept on doing so. Idle then to charge those who convince themselves something ought to be true, so could be true, may very well be true, is probably true, true on a balance of probabilities, must be true, as liars.

  • stephen maybery

    The greatest crime committed by Blair, was the crime of ignorance. Was no-one in the entire Whitehall machine aware of the generic hatred of the Iraqi population for the West in General and the British in particular? Indeed, hatred of the British was practically on the school curriculum in Iraq.

    How, you may ask am I so sure of myself? well, I designed all the concrete used in Saddam’s nuclear bunkers and spent two and a half years in Baghdad supervising their construction, that interlude appart I have spent half of my working life in the Middle East, when it comes to that part of the world I know what I am talking about.

    To send the military into Iraq without a clear strategy along with a swift exit plan was an act of crimminal negligence, as while the Iraqi’s loathed Saddam and undoubtedly welcomed his removal, the window of gratitude of the locals for their deliverers was a very narrow aperture indeed.

    If the lack of strategy regarding the occupation was bad enough, what was even worse was the callous underming of our armed forces by the very Government who sent the troops to Mesopotamia. This was no oversight by Blair and co, our troops were hog tied by human rights laws and the shibolleths of political correctness beloved of the Islington mafia. If the Government was not prepared to defend our soldiers when sent onverseas to defend our interests, then our boys should never have been dispatched to die in the first place.

  • Minnie Ovens

    All very true in this good article.
    But everything is looked at as if the UK had any real say in the matter.
    Rumsfeld and the Neo Cons had already decided that it was best that Iraq should rebuild itself with as little support from the allies as possible. The Neo Cons believed that society would genetically democratize itself (Sorry Hobbes, it seems Locke was the flavour of the day…).
    I remember sitting in my appartment in LA and hearing that a Major in the US Army, on being told that the Baghdad Museum was being pilfered of all its priceless antiquities, laconically stated that he had no forces to redress the situation and it was a low priority.
    Many of us already thought Rumsfeld was a thoughtless thug (albeit a good QFI) and this confirmed that everything was about to go sideways and then spiral downwards.
    Then KBR was appointed the major contractor after this happened and everything accelerated….even further downwards.
    Anyone in the UK that thinks we had any influence over any post war strategy in Iraq “avait les idees au dessus de sa gare”.

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