Magazine article The Spectator

Our Departure from Iraq Ends a Dismal Period in Our Military History

Magazine article The Spectator

Our Departure from Iraq Ends a Dismal Period in Our Military History

Article excerpt

'The past is the past. It is no longer important, ' says Brigadier Billal Saleh Shukur, commander of Iraq's 21st army brigade now occupying a part of Basra. We have met on a warm March day at the airbase outside the city, at the start of a five-a-side football tournament between teams drawn from the Iraqi and British forces. I had expressed my profound regret that the American-British Coalition, which rightly reveres every one of its own casualties, has always refused to count how many Iraqi citizens have been killed in six years of violence; and indeed has invested considerable effort in discrediting any human rights organisation that estimated the death toll. Somehow the Coalition came to treat Iraqis, the people we claimed to be liberating, as the enemy, or a group deserving no respect, whose deaths were not worth noting.

All things considered, the Brigadier's attitude is extraordinarily magnanimous. It is explained, perhaps, by the surge in confidence throughout the Iraqi forces since Operation Charge of the Knights, launched just one year ago. Led, literally, by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the army swept south towards Basra, driving out Moqtada al Sadr's Mahdi army, a Shia militia. It had controlled Basra. Its death squads had thoroughly penetrated the police, and unleashed murder and terror on a population for which Britain had responsibility as the invader and occupier.

In the wake of the Iraqi army's freeing of Basra, today the markets and cafes are crowded. At the funfair families enjoy the spring evening under the garish lights of a new Ferris wheel. Two British colonels and I head for the bumper cars. A couple of children cadge a ride with the officers, each kid incongruously sharing the cramped space with a man in uniform and his SA-80 rifle.

As we move about the amusement park, Baswaris greet us with smiles and 'salaam', their right hand flattened across their chest in a sign of respect. The women wear the hijab, but the young ones sport tight jeans too. They are all friendly and unabashed and their eyes meet ours steadily.

Even by night, the market stalls bustle.

The meat looks tasty (though its display would not satisfy EU health and safety laws).

The perfect oranges are from Pakistan, but most of the vegetables are local and presentable. The stallholders beam. Basra feels safe.

People can move around with little anxiety.

The provincial elections have gone well. It is not just that they have passed off with less violence than anyone dared to hope. The candidates and the public threw themselves into the contest with real enthusiasm. The streets became gaudy with election posters.

Manifestos poured off the presses, though in reality they all pledged the same: security, jobs and better services.

Now that people feel safe, they notice the power cuts more, and the blocked sewers.

We stop for a tea on the edge of the infamous Hayyanijah slum, a supposed hotbed of insurgents. With Colonel Richard Stanford (the British officer who is chief adviser to the Iraqi General Mohammed) I take tea at an open-air table with local lads that we find there. One of them is an offduty policeman, another a lorry driver, and two more have no work. In the places where they live there is no drinkable water, they tell us. Later, the colonel strolls unperturbedly along the streets of Al-Ashar, Basra's central district, stopping to chat in fluent Arabic with passers-by. This is British 'hearts and minds' soldiering at its best.

The normality of the city should not be exaggerated. We move from funfair to cafe in heavily armoured Iraqi vehicles and, given the risk of explosive attack, we wear body armour, helmet, goggles and gloves while travelling. But an opportunistic assault on us by a gunman is judged to be less likely, so we pull off the protective kit to walk about among the locals. The Iraqi soldiers provide protection. It is notable that the public shows no fear. …

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