Friday, March 28, 2008

Beyond the fluff

Forget Sarkozy and the fluff attendant on his state visit to the UK. Far greater events are afoot, which will shape Britain’s image as a military power or cement the view that it is a busted flush with no worthwhile global influence.

We write, of course, of the developing situation in Basra. Although consigned to the inside pages of the major newspapers, the outcome of the current violence – as we indicated earlier - will have a profound effect on Britain's standing.

As it stands, the situation does not look happy. The violence is spreading, the agencies are carrying multiple pictures of burnt-put Iraqi security force vehicles, gunmen in Baghdad seized a high-profile government spokesman from his home in a Shiite neighborhood, and Muqtada al-Sadr is not giving any ground.

Maliki, on the other hand, has pledged "no retreat", as tens of thousands of protesters gathered to demand his resignation and saboteurs hit the oil pipelines in Basra, striking at the heart of the Iraqi economy.

All reports indicate that the militias are still controlling Basra's streets, food and water is running out and there is a 24-hour curfew on vehicle movements, set to last until Sunday morning.

Unless in the next few days Maliki can demonstrate signs that his security forces are getting a grip of the city, either he is going to have to ask for help, or the British are going to have to offer it – perhaps covertly. But British involvement will be hard to disguise, especially if the body-bags start coming in, yet the humiliation of not being able to offer help if it is requested will be devastating.

Strangely, the British media have not made as much of this as perhaps they might, but Brown's reputation is as every bit on the line as is Maliki's. Brown's only hope is that Maliki does prevail but, in the more likely event that he does not, the world is going to be looking to Britain for its response.

Perhaps because the Conservatives have focused their attention on an inquiry into Iraq, rather than the current situation, the media have lacked a domestic political focus. But, even if the Tories remain silent, it is hard to believe the Americans will hold their tongues, which will give the media plenty to report.

Then, "better relations" with Sarkozy will be seen to be exactly what they are – fluff. In the balance is the far more important "special relationship" and the world-wide reputation of our military – and our government.

A "lame-duck" Britain - whose troops stay hunkered down in their bunkers at Basra Airbase, while Iraq security forces loose their grip and US forces move in to restore order – is the nightmare scenario that no amount of kissing and cuddling with Sarkozy and his spouse can overcome.

Brown, even now, may be regretting that he has spent so much time on grandstanding for the cameras and less time than he should working out his response to a collapse of operations in Basra. This has the makings of a "Singapore" and a "Suez" rolled into one.

After Basra, people will say, things were never the same.

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