The retreat from Basra

It is an admission of defeat. Iraq is turning into one of the world’s bloodiest battlefields in which nobody is safe. Blind to this reality, Tony Blair said yesterday that Britain could safely cut its forces in Iraq because the apparatus of the Iraqi government is growing stronger.

In fact the civil war is getting worse by the day. Food is short in parts of the country. A quarter of the population would starve without government rations. Many Iraqis are ill because their only drinking water comes from the highly polluted Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Nowhere in Mr Blair’s statement was any admission of regret for reducing Iraq to a wasteland from which 2 million people have fled and 1.5 million are displaced internally.

Nadia al-Mashadani, a Sunni woman with four children, was forced from her house in the Hurriya district of Baghdad under threat of death by Shia militiamen on 25 December. She was not allowed to take any possessions and is living with her family in a small room in a school in a Sunni neighbourhood. She told The Independent: “They promised us freedom and now we find ourselves like slaves: no rights, no homes, no freedom, no democracy, and not enough strength to say a word.” Like many Sunni she believed the US had deliberately fomented sectarian hatred in Iraq to keep control of the country.

Mr Blair’s description of Iraq might have been of a different country from that in which Mrs Mashadani is trying to survive. He dodged the question of why Britain can reduce its forces in Iraq below 5,000 by late summer at the same time as the US is sending a further 21,500 soldiers as reinforcements.

He stressed that the situation where British troops are based around Basra is very different from Baghdad and central Iraq where the bulk of US forces are concentrated.

The speed of the reduction in British forces in southern Iraq will be slower than many senior British officers had privately urged. Mr Blair said “the UK military presence will continue into 2008”. But long before then almost all the remaining British forces will be located at Basra air base and act in support of Iraqi military and police units.

Mr Blair gave the impression that the presence of US and British forces is popular among Iraqis. In fact an opinion poll cited by the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton report of senior Democrats and Republicans in Washington showed that 61 per cent of Iraqis favour armed attacks on US and British forces.

Even as Mr Blair was speaking there were bitter divisions within Iraq over the alleged rape of a Sunni woman in Baghdad by three members of the Shia-dominated security forces last Sunday. The predominantly Shia government denounced the alleged rape victim, claimed she was lying and commended the three officers she accused of raping her. Although UN figures show that almost 3,000 Iraqis are murdered by sectarian killers every month, the alleged gang-rape has the capacity to move the country more deeply into a civil war.

Mr Blair painted a picture of Iraq in which political and economic progress is only being hampered by mindless terrorists. He claimed that the aim of these groups was “to prevent Iraq’s democracy from working”. But one of the main problems is that the constitution and two elections in 2005 have embedded differences between Sunni, Shia and Kurds.

The Prime Minister said there were 130,000 soldiers in the Iraqi army and 135,000 in the police force. He showed only limited appreciation, however, of the extent to which these forces are allied to the Shia militias or the Sunni insurgents.

US government officials were putting on a brave face yesterday in reacting to the drawdown of British troops in Iraq. US spokesman still refer to “the coalition” but it is now a very small group of countries. The largest group after the British contingent is 2,300 soldiers from South Korea. Denmark announced yesterday that it would withdraw its 470 soldiers by August.

The government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is being torn apart by conflicting pressures from the US and its own Shia supporters. The US has considered forcing him out of office but any succeeding government might be closer to the US but would have limited popular support. Meanwhile Mr Maliki has complained that, for all the coalition talk of respecting Iraqi sovereignty, he cannot move a company of soldiers without US permission.

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