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    Middle East
     Sep 1, 2007
Britain's last stand in Iraq
By Ronan Thomas

LONDON - In 1936, British writer H G Wells wrote the screenplay for director Alexander Korda's classic film Things to Come, based on his own 1933 novel. In both book and film a frighteningly prescient aerial Blitz hits London (renamed "Everytown"). The world descends into conflict. Decades of internecine warfare follow.

Then, from afar, a new order arises. Calling itself the "last trustee of civilization", this self-appointed organization - a proto-United Nations called Wings Over The World (WOTW) - seeks to reshape the world. It sends giant flying aircraft to impose an "air 

dictatorship", dispersing "peace gas" from their bomb bays to disarm all remaining insurgents.

A peace conference to build a new global renaissance takes place at the WOTW "Mediterranean Region Headquarters". Aid and reconstruction are delivered from this headquarters to what is left of war-scarred Britain. The location and source of this munificence envisaged by Wells just over 70 years ago? None other than the city of Basra, southern Iraq.

Such are the ironies of history. Today the port city of Basra now represents the flip side of Wells' imaginative vision. Flawed external intervention, insurgent violence, corruption and shambolic infrastructure characterize the city today. There has been little resurgence for Basra despite four years of British administration. And there's scant chance today of a "peace gas" to mollify Basra's current Shi'ite insurgents, harrying British troops as they downsize force levels in the city.

The coming weeks will see British forces retrench further in Basra as they consolidate their remaining forces downward after four years of occupation. An urgent question has been posed in both London and Washington. Are the British now moving to quit southern Iraq early irrespective of previous commitments to stay the course?

This week, amid the swirling cross-currents of mid-Atlantic media claim and counter-claim, Britain's new prime minister, Gordon Brown, gave his answer: no chance. Instead, Brown reaffirmed his promise to President George W Bush, made at their first meeting at Camp David last month: Britain has "duties to discharge and responsibilities to keep".

No timetable exists for a final British withdrawal from Iraq, insists the British premier. There will be no Saigon-style evacuation of British troops from Iraq any time soon. Nevertheless, speculation as to Britain's record in Iraq and future strategic choices for Basra has led to some tetchiness between Britain and the US of late. The mood music between allies is a little discordant at the moment. Here's why: the United States has many complaints about the way Britain is handling its Iraq strategy. And Britain's record in Iraq is indeed mixed.

These are the facts on the ground in southern Iraq today. The situation remains one of grim fluidity. British strategy in southern Iraq has morphed since 2003 from reconstruction and security building to one of uneasy "over-watch" today - the training of Iraqi government security forces prior to the phased handover of security responsibilities.

Since 2003, Britain has sought to engage local Shi'ite political forces in Basra using negotiation and counterinsurgency experience gained in Northern Ireland and Malaya. But the results have not been pretty. Three local Shi'ite militias - the largest is the Mahdi Army led by Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr - have all refused to play British tunes. Forty-three British soldiers have been killed this year alone. More than 60 mortar and rocket attacks slam into British targets daily.

And two of the provincial governors installed by the Iraqi government have been assassinated in recent weeks. Since 2006, British military commanders and their US counterparts strongly suspect the Iraqi security apparatus to be deeply corrupt and infiltrated by insurgents. But Britain has now handed back three of the four Iraqi provinces under their control to the Iraqi government. The fourth is expected by the end of this year. The British Army will also shortly hand over its base at Basra Palace to the Iraqi government.

The palace garrison of some 500 soldiers will shortly leave to be based at Basra Airport; a last redoubt. Out of 18,000 British troops committed in 2003, there will soon be no more than 5,500. But just exactly whom will the British be handing everything over to? Shi'ite insurgents in Iraqi police and army uniforms? This is what's ringing alarm bells in Washington.

In August, a US intelligence source described Britain's counterinsurgency tactics as both a strategic failure and a defeat. Retired US Army General Jack Keane also recently highlighted the risks to the US of inheriting infiltrated Iraqi security forces. Privately, senior British commanders concur, and are also now telling journalists that their denuded forces are only capable of protecting themselves.

In the meantime, Shi'ite militias - with suspected Iranian-supplied weaponry - are jockeying for position for the prize of chasing Britannia all the way to Basra Airport's departure gate. This week's announcement from Muqtada that his militia will "freeze" its activities for the next six months has more to do with internal discipline issues rather than a desire to stop sniping at and mortaring British soldiers.

Add in growing evidence of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's apparent readiness to "fill any power vacuum created in Iraq" and nagging US doubts over British strategy will persist. In this light, Britain's record in Iraq may indeed be seriously flawed.

But consider Britain's other political and military considerations, even as it commits to what amounts to at least 18 months further in Basra and considers a financial cost since 2003 of perhaps US$12 billion. First come the dangers of British military overstretch. In Afghanistan, the British are engaged in a high-intensity conflict with the Taliban in Helmand province. British diplomats recently suggested that London sees military commitment to Afghanistan as a grueling 20-year prospect.

Politically, Brown also wants to show - for domestic consumption - that Britain is capable of action independent from the US after an unpopular war. At the same time, he is fully conscious of the danger of power vacuums. After all, the 60th anniversary of Britain's exodus from India in 1947 is currently being marked. Under partition, Britain left a poisonous legacy in its imperial wake: 2 million killed in Hindu-Muslim sectarian violence.

Yet the real issue for many British policymakers is much wider than Basra, Iraq or Afghanistan: the geostrategic specter of militant Islam. Britain's most senior - and most respected - military commander, General Sir Richard Dannatt, said this week that while he hopes for "some success in Iraq", Britain should be preparing for a wider "generation of conflict". In Churchillian language, he pointed to the threat from "a strident Islamic shadow over the world and a global conflict of values and ideas".

For now, the British Union flag flies over Basra. But Basra will be an unraveling force, torn apart by insurgent violence and hardly the model of reconstruction and resurgence the British hoped for in 2003. Brown will be hoping that he can hold the line in Basra until a final end game - during 2008-09 - can be engineered in tandem with the US.

So Wells' future vision of Basra as the exemplar of modernity will sit firmly within the realms of fantasy. Of course, there are still plenty of other ironies and strange symmetries in both book and film to divert readers and movie buffs alike. The supranational entity Wings Over The World, which wants to remake the globe, "believes in order and trade and world civilization, while running itself".

It is above all modern: "a brotherhood of efficiency and freemasonry of science". It represents "order and sanity". It wants to sweep away all concepts of national sovereignty and replace it by an ultra-modern internationalism. War is to be outlawed in the interests of self-appointed guardians of truth. Individuals must submit; globalization must prevail; there can be no dissenting voices or local solutions.

There are clear echoes here of the twin nightmares of communism and fascism that emerged out of the horrors of World War I (1914-18) to haunt the political and cultural discourse of the 1930s. But Wells' concept of global policing also sounds suspiciously like former British prime minister Tony Blair's own obsessions. While in office, he insisted on a foreign policy of "liberal interventionism".

Britain has certainly paid a blood price for it. Likewise, it's a similar vision to that proffered by the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration that prevailed in the policy debate in the United States after September 11, 2001. Many in the Islamic world could also argue - with some justification - that Wells' fictional global remaking is little different from the reality of United Nations-sanctioned coalition action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2007, Things to Come remains as engaging as when written and filmed in the 1930s. Except that its visions mean little in blighted Basra today. Things have come indeed for Basra - and for Iraq generally - but they're not the shining utopia of Wells' imagination.

Ronan Thomas is a British correspondent.

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Jul 10, '07

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