We have spent 30 months working with the local Iraqi police in Basra. Hundreds of millions of British taxpayers’ money have gone on the rebuilding of the institutions of civic society, of which the police are the key component. We have coached them, drilled them, exhorted them and recruited them. Swarms of MPs and journalists have been flown out to admire the change we are wreaking. And what is the net result?
The war in Iraq was based on a lie – and policing Basra is an illusion
What a shambles. What chaos. And how quickly it all seems to be getting worse. Looking at those pictures of a Basra jail, pulverised by the British Army, it seems hard to believe that it was only six months ago that the very same British Army took me to see a jail in the very same city.
I was there with a couple of Labour MPs, and a leading Welsh Nat, and we inspected the premises in our best Duke-of-Edinburgh way, smiles stitched tightly on, hands behind backs, and we all agreed that it was really rather impressive. I am not suggesting that a Basra jail is exactly a Mark Warner holiday – I remember the terrible fug and the black hole full of 34 juvenile offenders, some of them in for rape and murder, and the way they clutched at my legs and begged for “forgiveness”.
I remember the poor illiterate Iranian women and their children, the terrible sanitation, the gap-toothed grins on the faces of the men who crowded round the bars as we passed.
But on the whole, we MPs were agreed that much good was being done here, and being done by the British. The governor sat on his plastic brown armchair and gave a long speech of thanks to HMG, and I noted that we were instructing the Iraqis in some precious ideas: the concept of habeas corpus, the notion that a suspect was entitled to a lawyer, the complete inadmissibility of torture or beating – that kind of thing. Then we were bundled back into our flak jackets and into the armoured convoy, and I came away with the impression – whether brainwashed or not – that Britain and the fledgling Iraqi government were working together, with the utmost dedication, to rebuild public confidence in a humane and durable criminal justice system.
And now, on Monday, I learn the reality of the relations between the British forces and the Iraqi police.
To understand the extent of the breakdown in trust – the trust that was ostentatiously paraded before the four of us MPs – you have to understand the full sequence of what happened in Basra on Monday.
First, the two SAS soldiers, travelling undercover, refused to produce their documents when challenged by an Iraqi police roadblock. Why? Because they knew that the Iraqi police force in Basra is now completely riddled with extremist Shia elements, and they were in fear of their lives.
Consider the symbolic importance of that. We have spent 30 months working with the local Iraqi police in Basra. Hundreds of millions of British taxpayers’ money have gone on the rebuilding of the institutions of civic society, of which the police are the key component. We have coached them, drilled them, exhorted them and recruited them. Swarms of MPs and journalists have been flown out to admire the change we are wreaking. And what is the net result? It is not that the Basra police suffer from the odd bad apple; no, it’s like the denouement of a nightmare Hollywood cop movie, in which you discover that virtually the entire force has been corrupted.
In May this year, Basra’s police chief admitted that 75 per cent of his coppers were now loyal to one Shia faction or another, and were involved in attacks on coalition forces – for which candour he was sacked. So no wonder the two SAS men shot and killed a man, and no wonder that the Iraqi police wanted to detain them. One of their officers had been killed, and one can imagine that they wanted a judicial process. It seems only reasonable.
But then again it was also reasonable of Brig John Lorimer to decide to spring the SAS men from the clink because, by the evening, there had been a total breakdown in the Iraqis’ own system of authority. The interior ministry in Baghdad had ordered the release of the men, and the local cops had refused, at which point the British Army decided – almost certainly correctly – that the lives of two men were at risk and began a rescue operation. In the course of which British tanks flattened the vehicles of Iraqi police, British soldiers fired on Iraqi law enforcers, and the British Army – the Army that has tried so hard to help rebuild the authority of Iraqi policemen – contrived to smash a hole through the wall of this Basra clink, destroying the very locus and habitation of that nascent authority, and – or so it is said – allowing about 100 prisoners to escape.
Imagine you are a local Shia, and you have tried for months to persuade yourself that these British guys are not so bad. They might not be able to get the electricity going, and they might not be helping with the sewage, you say to yourself, but at least they are on the side of law and order. Then you see them smashing up the local police station. How do you feel? Do you feel moved to sign up to one of the militias? I wouldn’t be surprised.
With the growing insurgency in the Sunni triangle, things now seem so bad in Iraq that we who supported the war can only hope – hope that we Brits are still contriving to do some good in that other prison, and that our MPs’ inspection was not a complete illusion; and hope that we will be able to extricate ourselves, when the Iraqis decide, having begun the work of installing democracy.
Whatever we achieve in Iraq, we will not have made our own world safer, or made the risk of terrorism less likely: quite the reverse. Perhaps it is just my paranoia, but there was something too neat about the way the British authorities released the new pictures of the four suicide bombers this week, not just to take the heat out of the Basra story, but also subliminally to remind the public of the claim with which Blair invaded Iraq – that it was part of the “war on terror”. That claim was a lie, and whatever good may come out of the Iraq war, we should never forget that it was based on that lie.