Sunday, March 8, 2009
The commander of British forces in Iraq has said that all 179 UK troops killed fighting in the war sacrificed their lives for a good cause.
By Sean Rayment, Defence Correspondent in Basra
Despite the controversy surrounding the conflict, Major General Andy Salmon said that the servicemen and women who had been killed in Iraq since 2003 did not die in vain.
Gen Salmon declared "mission accomplished" for British forces, adding that now was the right time to return to the UK.
Gen Salmon, a Royal Marine Commando, who first served in Iraq 18 years ago, also said he believed that the insurgency had been defeated.
He added that the Iraqi Army now held the "monopoly of violence" and the power vacuum, which had been exploited by the militias, had now disappeared.
The general, who commands the coalition's multinational division south east, also predicted a bright future for Basra and said that with hard work and the right investment there was "no reason" why Basra could not become as successful as Dubai.
The general, who will be Britain's last commander of British troops in southern Iraq, said he was proud of what has been achieved but added that there were important "lessons to be learnt" from the six year operation.
He said that Britain played a significant part in bringing a nation out of the "darkness" of a totalitarian dictatorship.
In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph, the general said it was always difficult to judge whether any military operation was worth the sacrifice of soldiers' lives.
He is understood to be the first British officer to publicly state that war was worth the sacrificing the lives of British troops.
The general said: "It's always a very difficult question to answer. Different soldiers will give you different answers, depending on their experiences. We all know that being a member of the Armed Forces on operations is not without risk.
"The picture in Iraq is very positive right now. We (the coalition) got rid of a dictator, we have given freedom to Iraqis, we have seen the start of a democratic process, we have seen things get better. The Iraqis are very friendly towards us and they are actually very appreciative of what we've done and the sacrifices that have been made so we have given something precious. So the sacrifices of our mates have not been in vain, so in that respect it has been worth it."
The general added: "These are not just my views but the view of the majority of the soldiers. I ask them 'Do you think it was worth it?' and they say 'yes our mates didn't die in vain'."
Gen Salmon, who has been in the post since last autumn, also believed now was the right time for the British to pull-out because the military task had been achieved.
The general added that the militias had been defeated and lost the support of the population, although he admitted that they still represented a threat.
He said: "For the UK military, it is a case of mission accomplished. We have achieved what we set out to do. We have got the Iraqi 14 Division up and running to manage security by itself. We have handed over Basra International Airport; we have created a secure and stable environment for social and political development to take place."
The general said that last month's provincial elections were a "litmus test" for the Iraqi army, which it had passed.
He added that the withdrawal of the British Armed Forces did not represent complete disengagement.
"Our leaving doesn't mean that the UK isn't here to stay. It will remain in a number of ways. There will be some diplomatic presence here, there willl be some trading relationships, some commercial activity. There is still a lot of work to help investment to take place and we need to help British investors to get in.
"There will still be defence relationship too. The work that we have been doing with the naval training teams, to help build capacity in the Iraqi navy and marines, will continue to take place and we will probably help with some of their officer training. So it's the end of this particular mission for the UK military but it's not the end of the UK partnership and relationship with Iraq as a nation state."
When asked what the future held for southern Basra and Iraq as a whole, the general admitted that significant challenges lay ahead.
He said that Basra needed billions of pounds of investment and reconstruction and redevelopment of the city could take up to 20 years.
He added: "Basra is a city which has been denied investment for more than 30 years and Iraq, as a whole, has major problems with corruption."
But despite the challenges, the general said that he believed the future was bright.
He said that the "geo-strategic" position of Basra - it is Iraq's only sea port - meant that it could become a major international city.
The general added: "Basra has a rail link to Baghdad, which has rail linked to Turkey, so in two steps you are at the borders of the European Union and that should not be lost on investors.
"There is social, economic and political development that needs to take place and we often use names like Dubai when we try and give people an idea of what Basra could become. I know that speaking to some of my Iraqi colleagues they talk about tax-free zones, like elsewhere in the Middle East. It is that sort of vision the Iraqis all have for Basra."