January 3, 2009 – The destruction of the Army’s reputation will be one of the most lasting of Tony Blair’s legacies.
As we enter the year when the last British troops leave Iraq, further evidence is emerging of just what an abject failure Britain’s military intervention in Iraq has been. Despite the bravery of many individual soldiers, the only real success of the Government has been the extent to which it has managed to hide from view how, thanks to its catastrophic misjudgements, this has been the one of the most humiliating chapters in the history of the British Army.
In recent weeks, drawing on a wealth of published and unpublished sources, my colleague Dr Richard North has been compiling the first comprehensive account of this story, for a book to be published this summer as our troops beat their final inglorious retreat. Like any tragedy, it is a story which has unfolded through five main acts or stages,
Stage one began in April 2003 when, after 40,000 British troops took part in the US-led invasion, Britain was given the responsibility of restoring order in the predominantly Shia south-east of the country centred on Basra. We began with hubris, imagining we would be welcomed by the local population as liberators and that, such was our experience in Northern Ireland, establishing order would be no problem, Almost immediately, however, our troops came under sporadic attacks by armed militias, notably the “Mahdi Army’’ run by a militant cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. Having dismantled the structures of authority and reduced our troop numbers to 11,000, we had nothing like enough men to fulfil our legal duty under the Geneva Convention to maintain public order and safety.
Stage two began with the fateful decision in late 2003, endorsed by General Mike Jackson as head of the Army, to deploy 178 Snatch Land Rovers as our chief patrol vehicle. The intention, as part of the attempt to ”win hearts and minds’’, was to avoid using armoured Warriors in favour of vehicles looking less aggressive. In 2004 Muqtada’s Mahdi Army launched a conventional uprising in several cities, including Baghdad, provoking a massive US response which led to its defeat. In Basra and the south, therefore, the Mahdi Army resorted to guerrilla tactics, notably roadside bombs which caused havoc with the hopelessly unprotected Land Rovers. By summer 2005, as yet more soldiers died, the British were forced to suspend Snatch patrols. As the cities of Basra and Al-Amarah to the north came under militia control, this was where the British lost the confidence of an increasingly terrorised population,
Stage three in 2006 centred on the extraordinary, largely unreported drama surrounding Al-Amarah and the nearby base at Abu Naji, our largest after Basra. Unable to keep control over the city, the British hunkered down in Abu Naji, subjected to constant mortaring which they had neither the men nor the equipment to deal with. In August we retreated, supposedly handing over to the Iraqi army, only for the base to be triumphantly looted by the Mahdi Army, which by the end of October had turned Al-Amarah into a vast bomb-making factory, supplying insurgents all over Iraq.
Stage four in 2007 saw the Americans launch their spectacularly successful ”surge’’ to the north, with 20,000 additional men, equipped with the properly mine-protected vehicles the British so tragically lacked. Now impotently confined to just four bases in Basra, under constant attack, the British could do no more than protect the convoys needed to supply them. Forced to abandon one base after another, in September they retreated to Basra airport. In effect, for the British the war was over.
The fifth and final stage came in March 2008, when the Iraqi government and the US Army, frustrated by the failure of the British to carry out their responsibilities, and determined to end the flow of weaponry out of Al-Amarah, launched the operation known as ”the Charge of the Knights’’.
Entering Basra in overwhelming force, they routed the Mahdi Army, restoring the city to peaceful normality. Last June, Iraqi and US forces similarly liberated Al-Amarah. It was made clear to the British that their presence in Iraq was no longer relevant.
The British Army had entered Iraq in 2003 with a reputation as ”the most professional in the world’’. Six years later it will leave, having failed to fulfil any of its allotted tasks and having earned the contempt of the Iraqis and the Americans after one of our most humiliating defeats in history.
The fault for this lies almost entirely with Tony Blair, abetted by one or two very senior military commanders, who failed at any point after the invasion to provide the men and equipment needed to carry out the task to which Blair had vaingloriously agreed. The price paid has been measured partly in the deaths and injuries of our men – but above all it has been in that destruction of the Army’s reputation which will be one of the most painful and lasting legacies of the Blair era.