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Britain prepares to leave Iraq
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)