Britain deserves its share of the credit for what has been achieved in Iraq, and its achievements vindicate the losses suffered by its troops there, the senior British military commander in the country has told The Times.
“When our mission ends in Basra [on May 31], we will be leaving behind a city that is in far better nick than it was when we arrived in 2003. It’s more stable and the people have faith in, and a vision for, the future,” said Lieutenant-General John Cooper, Deputy Commanding General Multinational Force Iraq. “Our losses will be vindicated in the same way our losses in Northern Ireland were. Part of Service life is to make sacrifices. We accept it and live with it. We don’t wring our hands but we never forget those we leave behind.” Since the invasion in March 2003, 136 British personnel have been killed by enemy action and 43 have died in noncombat incidents. British Forces have come in for strong criticism for their role in Iraq, in particular since the withdrawal of all the troops from Basra city in September 2007, when extremist Shia militia forces were still in control of the streets.
Six months later thousands of US-backed Iraqi troops from Baghdad drove the extremists out of the city in Operation Charge of the Knights, led personally by Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister. Mr al-Maliki is known to have been angered upon discovering that Britain had been negotiating with al-Mahdi Army, the Shia militia he was trying to expel.
General Cooper was in command of the Multinational Division Southeast, encompassing Basra, in 2006, before the deal was negotiated to allow the last 500 British troops in the city to leave in 2007 without being attacked. “In 2006 there was increasing violence and there was a fear that it was going to slip into civil war, although this proved unfounded. But it was a tough time,” he told The Times, in his small office in the vast new US Embassy complex in Baghdad.
Charge of the Knights was undoubtedly a key moment in the postSaddam era, transforming the city’s security, and the military and the Ministry of Defence deny they were pushed on to the sidelines. But the British were kept unaware of the plan to send in Iraqi forces with US support until the last moment.
Up to 500 Shia militia were killed and the rest fled in the fighting, although the campaign got off to a shaky start when 3,000 British-trained Iraqis surrendered their weapons and fled, leaving their vehicles burning in the streets. The British provided Challenger 2 tanks as well as artillery units and RAF Tornados, but no combat troops were requested.
Nigel Hayward, who arrived as consul-general in Basra in the middle of Charge of the Knights, said that it would have been extremely difficult for the British battle group, by this time in an airbase outside Basra, to take on the militia, who could muster hundreds if not thousands at short notice, and to be able to sustain the operation for any length of time. “It wasn’t practical,” he told The Times.
General Cooper, 54, who is coming to the end of his appointment as deputy to the overall US commander, now General Ray Odierno, took up that post on March 23, 2008. This was, he pointed out, the Wednesday before the Iraqi Prime Minister announced, at short notice, that he was going down to Basra to launch the Iraqi operation.
He is keen to defend the British record. “You don’t get a decent history written until everyone involved is dead, but I hope that people will look back and say Iraq isn’t doing too badly,” General Cooper said.
“It has been a success for the Iraqis. The Iraqi Government have the people on their side and there’s a burgeoning democracy. The Iraqis have an appetite for democracy and that’s been achieved in six years, which is not a bad legacy.
“The Iraqi Army’s 14th Division in Basra, we built it up and trained the troops, and they have shown they can take full responsibility. Our mission, therefore, is complete, because the Iraqi security forces have Basra under control.”
Was it worth a war and the huge number of casualties to achieve this nascent democracy? “There’s no point in debating what has gone on before. The key is that we were deployed and given a task to do and we’ve done that pretty well. Now we will extract in good order.”