The news about a secret deal between the British and anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr did not come as a surprise to us. Britain’s war policy has been clear for the past several years: the country demonstrated no readiness to make sustained efforts in a prolonged war, nor did it act as a serious partner determined to win the conflict.
There are three aspects in this British betrayal. First, striking a deal with the enemy; second, selling an Iraqi city to the enemy of their Iraqi hosts and partners; and third, by not informing their American partners of their plans, enabling the U.S. military’s reliance on an untrustworthy partner — something the British military leadership turned out to be.
What’s worse — even assuming the “accommodation” was a thoughtful plan with good intentions — is that Britain upheld the deal even when the militias violated it. The militias did not renounce violence (attacks continued), and they did not switch to civil political activity. Still, the British didn’t take action.
To be fair, Britain deserves credit for being a good team member during the good days in the beginning of the war. They sent in some 40,000 troops and were enthusiastic about contributing to the quick collapse of Saddam’s defenses.
They sent the largest number of troops after the U.S. and celebrated the initial victory, showing themselves as allies of the U.S. But it looks like Britain wanted to share only the good days, nothing more. Things changed fast soon after. In fact, over the last two years, Britain has adopted a policy in Iraq that is opposite in direction to that of the U.S.
On the one hand, the Americans and Iraqis summoned all the power and resources they could get, and deployed them in an effort to enforce the law and combat the bad guys under a fresh strategy and counterinsurgency doctrine that emphasized having troops as close to the community as possible. Meanwhile, the British were doing exactly the opposite by shrinking away from the fight and from the community.
As residents of Basra for a year, we recall how the people perceived British troops. Basically people felt the British were both weak and largely indifferent to the situation. To the militias, that was seen as a golden chance to consolidate their power and take over the city; while among the ordinary people, it dealt a blow to morale and was a reason that people had little — if any — trust in the British.
What’s even more humiliating for Britain is that British leaders couldn’t exploit the advantages they had over their American counterparts in terms of past history of military operations and involvement in Iraq. It’s not an overstatement to say that the British had been fighting on their own turf in Basra. When they returned to that city in 2003, they returned to the very bases they had built only half a century before. Moreover, they had accumulated comprehensive knowledge of the people and tribes of the region that even many Iraqis don’t have.
Yet, their performance has been disappointing. British troops are not to blame for this poor performance; it’s the political leadership in London. The Americans handled places such as Baghdad and Anbar that used to be the most volatile parts of Iraq in 2004, and now, four years later, they largely succeeded in bring peace and order, making huge progress toward that goal. The British, by contrast, had been assigned what used to be the calmest parts of Iraq in 2004, but by spring 2008, under their watch, Basra became the most lawless city in the country. The British leaders managed to do this either with exceptional stupidity or exceptional and deliberate carelessness.
In our opinion, although the deal was made last year, Britain made the decision to offer basically the same deal unilaterally years before that by watching the monster grow under their noses without doing anything serious to stop it.
If the British truly don’t see themselves as part of the war, it would’ve been better for everyone to have the British admit it and tell the Americans and Iraqis that they wanted out. Then we would’ve thanked them for what they did, gave them a nice send-off, and struck them off the list of reliable allies, just like Spain.
To fight alone, knowing that you’re on your own, is much better than to have an ally on your side that strikes deals behind your back and exposes your flank to the enemy.