Britain prepares to leave Iraq

December 17, 2008

BASRA – It may not be the end-game Britain was hoping for when it ventured into Iraq, but it’s the end of the game nonetheless.

By the end of next May, almost exactly six years after 42,000 British troops joined the U.S.-led invasion and overthrew Saddam Hussein, Prime Minister Gordon Brown says Britain’s remaining 4,100 troops will be out of Iraq and his country’s role in the war over.

The overwhelming question, after 2,200 days of conflict and 178 soldiers killed, not to mention the thousands seriously wounded and the vast sums of money expended, is clearly: was it all worth it in the end?

Brown, who inherited the conflict from his predecessor Tony Blair and has never been entirely comfortable with taking on the mantle of ‘conquering commander-in-chief’, has been at pains to say it was, and spent Wednesday reiterating that point.

Making his fourth trip to Iraq as prime minister, Brown emphasised the training Britain’s troops had provided in Basra and the southern region, helping put 42,000 Iraqi police and soldiers onto the streets to maintain security for themselves.

Insurgent groups in and around Basra, a vital oil hub that at one stage looked liked falling into the hands of the Shi’ite militia known as the Mehdi Army, have been defeated, Brown said.

And as well as plans for another round of provincial elections at the end of January — a sign that democracy is taking root — the economy in the south is showing steady signs of growth, with inflation sharply down, oil exports up and the port of Umm Qasr busy hauling in much-demanded foreign goods.

But compare those outcomes — which remain tentative — with what Britain (and the United States with its claims of weaons of mass destruction) set out to achieve in Iraq, and ask Iraqis what they think, and a very different picture emerges.

Six years on, Iraqis complain about the persistent lack of electricity, which in some areas has still not reached the same level it was at before the invasion. They lament the number of civilians killed in military operations, and the number of Iraqis still languishing in military prisons.

The insurgency may have died down, they say, but it always threatens to return and security on the streets of Iraq is far from guaranteed. Economically, things may be improving, but jobs are few and far between and corruption is rife. The oil wealth the country is beginning to enjoy is not widely distributed.

In terms of politics, the successful staging of national and provincial elections has given Iraqis a feel for the process of democracy, but Iraqis often say they do not feel they have benefitted from the process — politics is a power game played way above their heads with little visible trickle down.

And then there are the persistent threats of internal breakdown, with the Shi’ite majority facing off against Sunnis, the Arab population nervous of Kurdish strength, and Iraqi nationalists fearful of the growing influence of Shi’ite Iran.

Those concerns, as well as the fact that any of the gains are easily reversed, leave many Iraqis (at least in the south) deeply ambivalent about the role that Britain has played.

Come mid-2009, when the last British military convoys are likely to be pulling out of Iraq, even British diplomats admit they don’t expect Iraqis to lay on parades in their honour.

It may not quite be good riddance from Iraq, and Britain may not have to leave with its tail between its legs, but by the same token it may be difficult for the military to leave with its head held high knowing the job had been well done.

(Pool photo of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown with troops in Umm Qasr port in Iraq)

5 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

A pair of shoes will wait for him if he doesn’t pull back his soldiers.

Bush was lucky to duck that saved him physically but I am sure all those shoes have hit the souls of all americans.

Posted by John | Report as abusive

A monstrous waste of lives, national reputation and money, to achieve nothing more than to hand Iraq over to the fanatics in Iran. As soon as British troops are safely out and we have a new government in the UK, the politicians responsible for this shambles must be held to account.

Posted by Jason | Report as abusive

Does’nt anybody remember the saying that if you don’t learn from the past that you are condemed to repear it? The Russians fought for eight years in afghanistan and finally retreated with their tales between their legs! These people have been fighting enemys and amongst themselves for God knows how long. You will not beat them into submission!!!

Posted by The Rounder | Report as abusive

Simply put the war in Iraq is over a war that should have never been fought. Obama is coming into office January 20 he is going to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq it will then be up to the Iraqi people to make a choice go back to the days of Saddam, be ruled by religious fanatics, have a civil war, let Iran take over their country or build a new Iraq that prospers and lives in peace run by Iraqi’s and no one else. That being said no matter what the reasons were for going to war whats done is done it can’t be changed. Harping on the past does not help the Iraqi people they have suffered enough it only inflames things. What is right is to get out of Iraq wish the Iraqi people well and let them chose their own path be it good or bad.

Posted by Ed | Report as abusive

Ed ( and others) who think that the Iraqis are any keener on rule from Tehran than they are on rule from anywhere else should reflect on the 8 year Iran-Iraq war, the legacy from which was still evident when I was there in 2003.

Iraq is Arab, Iran is Persian…..they have been at each others throats for 3,000 years;nothing the West does or does not do is going to change that.

Sad that British services have lost 178 dead ( and four times that wounded) with little to show for it.

Blair AND Brown – who was in Cabinet throughout – should be called to account by the British people.

Bash

Posted by cpl bash | Report as abusive