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Britain's Basra Failure By: David Paulin
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, August 15, 2008


Three years ago this month, American freelance journalist Steven Vincent was kidnapped and murdered in Basra, Iraq, a port city then under British military control. His murder occurred as Britain's military – as Vincent had earlier reported – was turning a blind eye to the rise of menacing Shiite religious groups, including those of bellicose rebel cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

Now, three years later, the ineptitude of British forces in Basra has boiled over into a full-fledged scandal in Britain, as today's Wall Street Journal notes in an editorial, "Basra and the Brits.” The scandal concerns the failure of British military forces to lift a finger to help Iraq's Army prevail in a pivotal battle earlier this year. Explains the WSJ:


...(W)hen the Iraqi military ran into trouble at the start of their operation this year, the 4,100 Brits remained in their garrison at the airport outside the city. The Iraqis had to call in the Americans from the north for air cover and other support to help defeat radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. It was the first time the U.S. had deployed to the British-controlled region of Iraq in five years. The operation turned into a major success, with the Mahdi Army routed and the Iraq government in control.

 

But the British failure to act was an embarrassment, even a humiliation, and explanations have begun to emerge. All point to a failure of political leadership. It turns out that last September the British had struck a deal with Mr. Sadr, essentially ceding him control over Basra and releasing some 120 militia regulars from custody.

 

In exchange, the Mahdi Army let U.K. troops beat a retreat from their base inside Basra to the airport unmolested. The Times of London reports that under the deal no soldier could set foot back in the city without express permission from Defense Minister Des Browne. Reports from Iraq add that the British performance has led to significant cooling of relations between the U.S. and British military forces in Iraq.

The Brown government implicitly acknowledges the deal with Mr. Sadr -- albeit without apologizing to the people of Basra who were terrorized for half a year by the Mahdi Army.

Vincent, had he lived, would hardly have been surprised by such revelations. The art critic-turned-war reporter was the among first journalists to criticize Britain's peacekeeping effort. In an Op-Ed he published in the New York Time on July 31, 2005, “Switched off in Basra,” Vincent noted that religious groups were infiltrating civic life in Basra, including its police force; and they were, reportedly, participating in political assassinations. It was occurring while the British military sat on its hands. Vincent wrote:

...(T)he British stand above the growing turmoil, refusing to challenge the Islamists' claim on the hearts and minds of police officers. This detachment angers many Basrans. "The British know what's happening but they are asleep, pretending they can simply establish security and leave behind democracy," said the police lieutenant who had told me of the assassinations. "Before such a government takes root here, we must experience a transformation of our minds."

What accounted for such a poor performance by America's closest alley? In a sense, Britain's military was paralyzed by political correctness and a lack of ideological will, according to Vincent's account three years ago. He wrote:

Fearing to appear like colonial occupiers, they avoid any hint of ideological indoctrination: in my time with them, not once did I see an instructor explain such basics of democracy as the politically neutral role of the police in a civil society. Nor did I see anyone question the alarming number of religious posters on the walls of Basran police stations. When I asked British troops if the security sector reform strategy included measures to encourage cadets to identify with the national government rather than their neighborhood mosque, I received polite shrugs: not our job, mate.

Two days after Vincent's Op-Ed appeared, he and his Iraqi translator, Nour al-Khal, were snatched off a Basra street, shoved into a car, and driven off by men that, it's thought, may have been rogue police officers. The 49-year-old Vincent was brutally beaten. He was shot in the back. Nour, who's about 30 years old, was shot and left for dead. A year ago, Vincent's widow, Lisa Ramaci-Vincent, brought Nour to America, making a home for her in her Manhattan apartment. She thereby honored her husband's pledge to remove his translator, an aspiring poet, from harm's way in Iraq.

Vincent, a former art critic, answered his calling as a war reporter after watching the 9/11 attacks from the rooftop of his Manhattan apartment. Much of his perceptive reporting may be found in his book, “In the Red Zone: A Journey into the Soul of Iraq.” Unlike Britain's military, he leaves a legacy that will endure as a testament of physical courage and moral clarity.


David Paulin, an Austin, TX-based free-lance journalist, is a former Caracas-based foreign correspondent.


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