Monday, February 19, 2007

One step closer

Following in the wake of The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph, in an "exclusive" story, the News of the World is now claiming that thousands of British troops in Iraq are to return home in May, reducing the 7,000-strong contingent to 4,000. But this has been flagged up so often that one wonders where the NOTW has been all these months.

Nevertheless, the newspaper is declaring that at least four battalions which had been due to go to Iraq in May - replacing troops returning home - will stay here and that Britain will hand control of Basra province to the Iraqi army and police within months, with the remainder of British forces in Iraq withdrawing to their permanent base at Basra International Airport.

The British forces which remain, we are told, will help to protect the vulnerable supply routes from Kuwait used by US forces. But they will have almost no presence in Basra.

But, as we have pointed out, Basra is very far from being pacified or under control. Even a few days ago, on 15 February, one Iraqi was killed and two British soldiers were injured – one seriously - when an armed group using RPGs and light weapons attacked a British force at one of the checkpoints in the city.

Owing to heroic intervention by world class medical facilities, so many of the soldiers who are badly injured actually survive, which means that the death rate is perhaps lower than it might otherwise have been. This is extremely helpful to the government, faced with a media that only tends to record fatalities. Thus this incident, like so many got little media attention.

That will almost certainly be the case with another battle in Basra yesterday, reported by Reuters, when British forces fought with gunmen armed with machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades, killing at least three. Soldiers had been supporting Iraqi troops on a "strike operation" in the northern slum area of Hayaniya when they came under attack.

There is more to this than meets the eye as it is suggested that the combined forces were taking part in an operation aimed against at least one person suspected of roadside bomb and mortar attacks on British forces. In the past, when these operations have been successful, the MoD has been quick with the publicity, indicating that this one might have achieved less than was desired.

The operation, however, definitely sets the tone for the future as the BBC reports Blair claiming that the operation to hand over frontline security in Basra to Iraqi troops had been "completed" and has been "successful". Iraqi forces, he said, were in "control of frontline security in the city".

That, according to The Guardian/AP just leaves Tony Blair Britain's to make a statement on his future Iraq strategy. Why he should bother is not immediately evident as it is quite clear that the policy has already been decided.

But, in a rare moment of agreement with Simon Jenkins, we accepted his assertion that, "for retreat to be tolerable it must be called victory."

We are now one step closer to that "victory".


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