UK’s retreat from Basra is ‘A historic day for Iraq – but not in the way the British want to believe,’ writes Robert Fisk.
One hundred and seventy-nine dead soldiers. For what? 179,000 dead Iraqis? Or is the real figure closer to a million? We don’t know. And we don’t care. We never cared about the Iraqis. That’s why we don’t know the figure. That’s why we left Basra yesterday.
I remember going to the famous Basra air base to ask how a poor Iraqi boy, a hotel receptionist called Bahr Moussa, had died. He was kicked to death in British military custody. His father was an Iraqi policeman. I talked to him in the company of a young Muslim woman. The British public relations man at the airport was laughing. “I don’t believe this,” my Muslim companion said. “He doesn’t care.” She did. So did I. I had reported from Northern Ireland. I had heard this laughter before. Which is why yesterday’s departure should have been called the Day of Bahr Moussa. Yesterday, his country was set free from his murderer. At last.
History is a hard taskmaster. In my library, I have an original copy of General Angus Maude’s statement to the people of Baghdad – $2,000, it cost me, at a telephone auction a few days before we invaded Iraq in 2003, but it is worth every cent. “Our military operations have as their object,” Maude announced, “the defeat of the enemy… our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.” And so it goes on. Maude, I should add, expired shortly afterwards because he declined to boil his milk in Baghdad and died of cholera.
There followed a familiar story. The British occupation force was opposed by an Iraqi resistance – “terrorists”, of course – and the British destroyed a town called Fallujah and demanded the surrender of a Shiite cleric and British intelligence in Baghdad claimed that “terrorists” were crossing the border from Syria, and Lloyd George – the Blair-Brown of his age – then stood up in the House of Commons and said that there would be “anarchy” in Iraq if British troops left. Oh dear.
Even repeating these words is deeply embarrassing. Here, for example, is a letter written by Nijris ibn Qu’ud to a British intelligence agent in 1920: “You cannot treat us like sheep… it is we Iraqi who are the brains of the Arab nation… You are given a short time to clear out of Mesopotamia. If you don’t go you will be driven out.”
So let us turn at last to T E Lawrence. Yes, Lawrence of Arabia. In The Sunday Times on 22 August 1920, he wrote of Iraq that the people of England “had been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information… Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows.” Even more presciently, Lawrence had written that the Iraqis had not risked their lives in battle to become British subjects. “Whether they are fit for independence or not remains to be tried. Merit is no justification for freedom.”
Alas not. Iraq, begging around Europe now that its oil wealth has run out, is a pitiful figure. But it is a little bit freer than it was. We have destroyed its master and our friend (a certain Saddam) and now, with our own dead clanking around our heels, we are getting out yet again. Till next time…