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.
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.’
None 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.
This article was originally published in 2010 in The Spectator