Originally published in The Independent.
Two more British soldiers were killed in southern Iraq yesterday [Aug. 9], raising the death toll in the UK’s least successful military campaign since Suez in 1956. In both cases the British casualties were low but British forces wholly failed to achieve their objectives.
Two Irish Guardsman were killed and two were seriously wounded in the early hours of yesterday when their convoy was hit by a roadside bomb near the Rumaila oilfields west of Basra. The deaths bring to 168 the number of British personnel who have died in Iraq since the invasion in 2003.
British losses have increased as they prepare to abandon their last base in Basra city and retreat to their frequently attacked air base on the outskirts of the city. Here the contingent of 5,500 troops has been hit by mortars and rockets more than 600 times in the past four months.
“Basra’s residents and militiamen view this not as an orderly withdrawal but rather as an ignominious defeat,” according to a report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) on Basra published in June. “Today, the city is controlled by militias, seemingly more powerful and unconstrained than before.”
British officials have privately echoed American claims that the Shia militias in Basra and in the rest of Iraq are being manipulated and supplied by Iran. But the three main Shia groupings in Basra, the Mehdi Army, the Badr Organisation and Fadhila, would control most of southern Iraq with or without Iranian aid.
“The British have basically been defeated in the south,” a senior US intelligence official was quoted as saying in Baghdad. The final deterioration of the British position has become evident since the end of Operation Sinbad between September 2006 and March 2007, which sought to curb the militias and strengthen security in Basra. But from March on the militias have reasserted their hold on the city and killed 30 British soldiers between April and July, making it the deadliest period for British forces at any time since 2003.
The increase in attacks may be because the militias see the British as being on the run, but also because of the growing military friction between the Shia militiamen and the occupation forces in general.
Lt-Gen Raymond Odierno, the US deputy commander in Iraq, says Shia militants were responsible for 73 per cent of the attacks that killed or wounded American soldiers in Baghdad in July. The increase in Shia attacks on British personnel may be part of the same pattern.
The US has been seeking to blame the escalation of Shia militia attacks on Iran but it is more likely that they are the result of growing frustration of the Shia, who make up 60 per cent of the Iraqi population, at what they see as increasing US support for the Sunni.
The Pentagon and White House have launched a campaign to persuade the media that Iran’s provision of sophisticated shaped charges is a decisive factor in the war and is causing numerous US casualties. The accusation is denied by Iran and, even if true, the provision of a single type of explosive device is unlikely to be of critical significance in such a complex struggle.
British forces have already withdrawn from three of the four provinces in southern Iraq, saying they are turning over security to Iraqi government authority. But police and army in Basra and southern Iraq are largely under the control of militias.
The outlook for the two million people in Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, is not good. According to the ICG report, violence in the city has little to do with sectarianism or anti-occupation resistance but involves “the systematic misuse of official institutions, political assassinations, tribal vendettas, neighbourhood vigilantism ... together with the rise of criminal mafias that increasingly intermingle with political actors.”