The British retreat from Iraq brings peril for U.S. troops

Vice President Cheney says the British are leaving southern Iraq because things are going so well. In the real world, Basra is a mess.

Topics: Al-Qaida, Dick Cheney, Iraq, British Election, Middle East

The British retreat from Iraq brings peril for U.S. troops

Tony Blair’s announcement that Britain would withdraw 1,600 troops from southern Iraq by May, and aim for further significant withdrawals by the end of 2007, drew praise from U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. “What I see,” said Cheney, “is an affirmation of the fact that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well.”

In reality, southern Iraq is a quagmire that has defeated all British efforts to impose order, and Blair was pressed by his military commanders to get out altogether — and quickly. The departure has only been slowed, for the moment, by the pleas of Bush administration officials like Cheney. And far from the disingenuously upbeat prognosis offered by the vice president, the British withdrawal could spell severe trouble for both the Iraqi government and for U.S. troops in that country.

The British helped provide the security that allowed private supply convoys bearing fuel, food and ammunition to travel from Kuwait up through Shiite-held territory to the U.S. military’s forward operating bases in and around Baghdad and in Anbar province. Col. Pat Lang, a retired senior officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency, has pointed out that if Shiite militias began attacking those trucks, American troops in the center-north of the country would become sitting ducks for the Sunni Arab guerrillas.

The other danger posed by the British withdrawal is to Iraq’s economy. The southern port city of Basra is the country’s primary economic window on the world. Exports of the 1.6 million barrels a day of petroleum it managed to produce in January all went out of Basra. The pipeline that used to take Iraqi exports from the northern oil city of Kirkuk to Ceyhan on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast has been subject to constant sabotage. The Iraqi state depends on the revenue realized from Basra’s exports for its survival. As it is, it has been charged that militias siphon off $2 billion a year in petroleum revenues through smuggling operations. Were the central government to lose control of even more of those revenues, it could be starved to death.

And the danger is imminent. Although it is often alleged that Basra is relatively calm because it lacks Sunnis, neither claim is true. Though heavily Shiite, Basra also has tens of thousands of Sunnis — even, perhaps, the odd al-Qaida operative. Sunni spokesmen such as Qatar-based Yusuf al-Qaradawi maintain that thousands of Sunnis have been driven out of the city and that a hundred Sunni mosques have been confiscated by Shiites. The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government denies these allegations.

And Basra is certainly not calm. The British have faced a difficult situation in the city during the past two years in particular, which has not been helped by the recent deterioration in relations throughout Iraq between Coalition troops and the Mahdi army of nationalist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. In largely Shiite southern Iraq, the British have lost 132 troops to attacks by militiamen, many of them involving roadside bombs. British bases and headquarters are constantly targeted with mortar fire and Katyusha rockets, and often nearby Iraqis are killed by accident in these attacks. Last Oct. 30, the British were forced to relocate most of the staff at the British consulate in Basra out to the airport because the consulate kept coming under mortar fire. When the British consulate cannot even function in the heart of a city, it is a sign of poor security.

On Feb. 5, Basra police chief Maj. Gen. Muhammad al-Musawi had called for the British to turn over security duties entirely to Iraqi forces. The British had just been attacked at their headquarters downtown, and it was widely felt in Basra that the presence of the British troops was stirring up Shiite militiamen to engage in violence. There was no prospect of the attacks on British troops tapering off as long as they remained in the city, al-Musawi implied. Even British military sources began admitting that they might be doing more harm than good in the city.

On Feb. 16, the Iraqi newspaper Ilaf reported that British forces had launched a huge military campaign against the Mahdi army and the Sadr movement of Muqtada al-Sadr in Basra. It described violent clashes between the two in the districts of Jumhuriya, Hayaniya and Tuwasa. Twenty senior leaders of the Sadr movement were arrested throughout the city.

Reuters reported on Feb. 18 that a joint British and Iraqi army patrol had come under attack by Mahdi army militiamen firing machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades when it passed through the Shiite ghetto of Hayaniya in Basra. They returned fire, killing three militiamen. Reuters explained, “The battle erupted during a crackdown by 3,000 Iraqi and British troops in the oil port on violence by criminal gangs and feuding Shiite militias.”

If there are criminal gangs and feuding Shiite militias in Basra that are so brazen as to start a firefight with the British military, then it is hardly the success story painted by Cheney. A day later, on Feb. 19, an Iranian satellite television news channel reported on “mass demonstrations” by thousands in Basra against British arrests of local residents. Demonstrators also charged that British troops had “humiliated” women and the elderly.

The Iraqi institutions that the British will leave behind them don’t promise a quiet time for the Americans either. In the provincial elections held in January 2005, the Shiite religious parties swept to power on the Basra Governorate’s council. Twenty of the 41 seats went to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, a party close to Iran that seeks an Islamic state and wishes to see Basra part of a Shiite super-province in the south. The Virtue Party of Ayatollah Muhammad al-Ya’qubi put together a coalition that controlled the other 21 seats, giving it a majority and allowing it to appoint the governor and police chief.

The Virtue Party infiltrated its supporters into the Basra police force, as did SCIRI. Both parties fielded their militias to patrol neighborhoods and impose a puritanical moralizing on the population, destroying liquor and video stores and forcing girls to veil. The militias are accused of engaging in turf wars for rights to petroleum smuggling. They compete with each other, with the Mahdi army, and with Marsh Arab tribesmen, who often function as mafias or militias themselves.

In the summer of 2006, after Iraqi authorities had announced that Basra’s citizens were being assassinated at the rate of one an hour, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki deployed Iraq’s 10th Army Division to Basra. They initially set up checkpoints. But the Arab press reported that they took so much sniper fire that at length they deserted their checkpoints and faded into the background. Although they have been more aggressive this winter, patrolling with British troops, it is unlikely that they could take on the militias and Marsh Arab tribesmen on their own anytime soon.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad protested British withdrawal plans last month, telling the BBC, “Our preference would be — the longer we stay together here, the better.” He was certainly speaking on behalf of Cheney, even if the vice president, confronted with the actual departure of America’s most important ally, now chooses to feign optimism. Cheney’s sunny misdirection obscures the dangers of a British withdrawal in the absence of any sign of reconciliation by Iraq’s warring factions. Without a United Nations peacekeeping force or the like to tamp down violence, the British retreat from Basra is unlikely to produce positive results. In the worst-case scenario, it could leave vital U.S. supply lines vulnerable and allow a key exporting port to be closed or hijacked, endangering the survival of the Baghdad government.

Salon contributor Juan Cole is a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan and the author of "Engaging the Muslim World."

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>