As Tony Blair prepares to sit in the dock tomorrow, I suspect he knows he’ll walk it. The focus is on the case for war and how it was spun – which will be his Mastermind specialist subject. Nor will anything new be uncovered. As one of the journalists whose summer holiday was eaten up by the Hutton Inquiry, I have been getting a sense of deja lu throuhout the Chilcot Inquiry – and Hutton was more informative because he exposed emails written at the time. They had more meaning and impact that the hazy recollections we hear now. The real story is one that Chilcot has unearthed almost accidentally: the betrayal of Basra. I write about it in the magazine this week: the evidence we have heard so far has told us plenty about how Blair turned the other way as Basra slid towards hell. In our rush to leave, we badged up militiamen – and handed over the police uniform, weapons, police stations etc. All so Blair could stand in the Commons and say “We are making great progress, we are building up the police and the army etc.” The British also stood by as these “police” started to declare their allegiance to the militia leader with a poster of al-Sadr or whoever on the police station door: there was no pretence of this being an Iraqi national government police. American journalists were appalled at what was a slow handover of power to death squads. Here’s Steven Vincent from the New York Times in July 2005.
‘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…’
There were no British journalists based in Basra, partly because of the costs of insuring them and partly because of the danger. Some excellent pieces were commissioned, done now and again – including a Channel Four Dispatches – but the reports always had to compete with far more dramatic news from the American sector and Baghdad. To report on Basra was of the most dangerous assignments in Iraq because it had become a militia-run city. If you read the link to the above quote, it says at the end “Vincent is writing a book on Basra.” Blair is lucky that book never appeared. Four days after writing that piece, “Switched Off in Basra,” Vincent was kidnapped and executed by miltiamen wearing Iraqi police uniform.
The horror stories, when they came out, showed how far things had descended. Some 42 barbers had been executed for un-Islamic shaving of beards. The mutiliated bodies of women were being found in the street, with notes pinned on them accusing them of un-Islamic activities. Saddam’s dictatatorship was secular – and Basra was being Taleban-ised. Blair would say how morally repugnant this was when happening in Afghanistan, but he turned a blind eye when such butchery was introduced to a city that had – even under Saddam – known none of it.
“The situation in Basra is very different from Baghdad. There is no Sunni insurgency. There is no Al Qaida base. There is little Shia on Sunni violence. The bulk of the attacks are on the Multi National Forces. It has never presented anything like the challenge of Baghdad. “
Right enough: there was no Sunni v Shi’ite violence. But there was Shi’ite militia violence: the nationalist al-Sadrs versus the more pro-Iranian Mahdi Army with the terrorised people of Basra caught in between. Was this so much better? We have learned in Chilcot that the Britain had been cutting deals with the militas (here, p32). This was justified under some Northern Ireland-style logic: to engage the militias in the political process, get them to drop the bomb and use the ballot box as Sinn Fein had done. That’s one way of dealing with terrorists. Another is to kill their leaders and run them out of town – and that’s what Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, did in Charge of the Knights in March 2008. Basra was re-invaded, by the Iraqi army from Baghdad (the Basra army was choc full of militia men) and a surge helped by American arms. They cleaned up our mess. It was an devastating indictment of Britain’s failure. David Kilcullen, a key adviser to the American command, put it brutally: “In 2006 the British army was defeated in the field in southern Iraq."
Tony Blair ordered the invasion of Basra and dislodged its government without having anything to put in its place. He had a moral duty to protect those people from the terror unleashed by his failure to win the peace. We have heard in Chilcot from one general (here, p4) that he had 200 troops for a city of 1.3 million – was there any, any surprise that (as the general put it) “the militia controlled the city?” Blair spun his way out of that, saying the goal was that (as he put it) “the next chapter in Basra’s history can be written by Iraqis.” The Saddam chapter was written by Iraqis too – so why did we invade? He would have known the atricocities were going on, that Basra had – under Britain’s eye – fallen to the militias. And in the end, Basra was liberated not by Britain but by American arms and Iraqi endeavour. This is Blair’s real crime – and one I fear that he will not be questioned on tomorrow.