Friday, August 31, 2007

Not good enough Mr Browne

The MoD website has named the RAF Regiment gunner, whose death we reported yesterday. He was Senior Aircraftman Christopher Bridge from C flight, 51 Squadron Royal Air Force Regiment (pictured below right).

Defence Secretary Des Browne is quoted as saying:

Senior Aircraftman Christopher Bridge was held in very high regard by his comrades and officers. His death is a tragic loss which is being felt by all who knew him. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and comrades at this most difficult of times.
That is not good enough Mr Browne. Your thoughts should have been with these men, before they died, when they were being sent out into a hostile environment. Then they might have been properly equipped.

As it is, Daily Express has picked up the "Corporate Manslaughter" issue (no link, but click on the pic above, and it should be readable.) Says "Tory researcher" Richard North:

We have now lost at least 30 soldiers who have been killed while patrolling in Land Rovers, as well as many more who have been badly injured. I have no doubt they would be alive today if they had been travelling in properly protected vehicles.
If Mr Browne cares to dispute that, then perhaps he, Lord Drayson and General Dannatt might like to visit Kandahar airbase. They could then take out a WIMIK Land Rover one dark night and tour the perimeter for a few hours, or until their vehicle hits a mine.

And, if they are not prepared to do that, why should they expect our soldiers to do it?


We are soooo happy for them!

The MoD website is currently sporting one of its routine PR "puffs" to highlight its glorious activities in defence of this country.

This time it is the turn of the 3,463 chaps and chapesses from Defence Science and Technology (Dstl), with a combined salary bill of £141.7 million (enough to buy 300 Mastiffs). And, as the site tells us, "There's rarely a dull day for defence scientists as the latest annual report shows." We are soooo happy for them.

In gushing prose, the site informs us that the annual report and accounts, "highlights the importance of its scientists work to the UK Armed Forces and to national security. It also details some astonishing areas of Dstl's research."

Be prepared to be astonished. In terms of "supporting front-line activities", we are told that this "remains at the heart of Dstl's work." Would you know that:

Dstl's deployed scientists play a vital role on the front line, solving urgent operational problems and providing commanders with access to key decision-support tools. Dstl scientists have been asked to provide collateral damage advice through their unique computer modelling techniques to give front line troops options on how to reduce debris from explosions.
Well, tell that to the RAF Regiment gunner, whose death we reported yesterday and the other soldiers who have been killed by "explosions" while riding in WIMIK Land Rovers. We are sure that they would have been mightily pleased to learn "how to reduce debris from explosions".

But, if the chaps and chapesses at the Dstl can tear themselves away from self-congratulation, maybe they could just apply their brilliant brains to designing an open-topped patrol vehicle, which the Army seems so much to want, that is also mine and blast proof.

And if they need any guidance, they could just have a look at the RBY Mk 1 Armoured Car (pictured). It is airmobile while designed specifically to maximise mine protection. Furthermore, the vehicle can be armed with four pintle mounted machine guns – two more than the WIMIK.

The interesting thing is that it was developed by RAMTA, a subsidiary of IAI, in 1975 – over 30 years ago. Although only 25 were built, they are still in IDF service. And if you take a closer look at the underside (pictured) you will see … the now classic v-shaped profile which is necessary to protect occupants from mine strikes.

Around the same time, under huge constraints from sanctions, the Rhodesian forces were developing their own mine protected vehicles, this one (pictured) being an example. Based on a Land Rover chassis, this vehicle was designed specifically for airfield defence, exactly the task the troops from 51 Squadron RAF Regiment were undertaking when one of their vehicles was blown up by a mine, killing one of their number and an interpreter.

Again, although more primitive in construction, you will see the classic v-shaped profile that is now seen on the Mastiff – the British Army’s derivant of the US Cougar mine protected vehicle. And, by some strange irony, this vehicle too is called the Cougar. What comes round goes round.

The point, of course, is that vehicle mine protection technology has been around now for thirty years, and is well proven. That it is not used, therefore, is not for want of understanding, but simply that there is no will to introduce it in current vehicles. Keeping soldiers alive in mine-infested country is simply not a priority.

That, at least, is our attempt to rationalise the situation. On the other hand, when you see what the MoD has produced by way of a (limited) successor to the Land Rover WIMIK – the Supacat – you do begin to wonder. When we first saw a picture of it, we called it "insane". Criminal stupidity might be a better description.

Whether insanity or criminal stupidity, though, it has to stop. The MoD has had plenty of warning that the Taliban were going to use mines to murder British troops. It is now time they got off their backsides and instructed Dstl to do something useful.


Greeks protest

The Greek demonstration in Athens has been picked up by several MSM outlets (often in surprisingly similar words). About 10,000 people, some dressed in black, some wearing masks, gathered in Athens to protest the government’s rather feeble handling of the catastrophic (for once, the word is apt) fires that swept across parts of the country.

Among the various complaints are the fact that there had not been enough investment in the fire-fighting services over the years though this, presumably, applies to successive governments; that the law allowing and, indeed, encouraging people to burn down parts of forest for property development still stands; that people in danger zones were more or less abandoned to their fate.

It should be noted that so far 74 people have lost their lives in the fires, mostly people unwilling to leave their homes and their animals till it was too late, though some were firefighters. The numbers of injured run into hundreds and those made homeless into thousands. The loss of wildlife and of natural resources is incalculable.

The fires, as the Times reports, are dying down though there is fear of another heat wave reigniting smouldering undergrowth.
In the Peloponnese, the inferno destroyed hundreds of homes in dozens of villages, fragile mountain ecosystems – which will require decades to revive – and an entire rural way of life in some of the peninsula’s worst afflicted areas.

The flames even damaged parts of the 2,800-year-old World Heritage site of Ancient Olympia, birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games and the place where the Olympic Flame is lit for the summer and winter games.
Well, what a good thing the Elgin Marbles and many other Greek antiquities in other parts of the world are safe.

Thousands of people are receiving immediate food aid. It is not entirely clear how this will affect the soon to be fought election. PASOK, also enmired in corruption scandals, is gaining on the governing, supposedly conservative New Democracy, but the non-investment in Greek infrastructure has been a scandal for several decades.

Der Spiegel, which has published a number of extremely good photos, one of which I shamelessly nicked, quotes from a number of German-language newspapers that show little European solidarity and insist that the Greeks must put their own house in order. This attitude might be coloured by the knowledge that over the years Greece has received billions of euros and before that pounds and marks from the European Union and has, apparently, done very little useful with them.

Die Welt says:
The current catastrophe is just too big to be ignored. Certainly Brussels will show Europe's material solidarity. But maybe this disaster will be a chance to correct the distorted image of the country. Greece is a poor country on the borders with Asia, with its own traditions and countless problems. Beyond Athens, the Third World begins. It would help desolate Hellas, if we could finally understand that.
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung goes further:
People in Greece like to wallow in self pity and victim mentality. Wherever you look there is the denial of responsibility.

This should be the beginning of a serious debate: Greece has to get itself in order ... The Greek know that after catastrophe, tragedy and apocalypse there is catharsis -- purification through misery, fear and shock.
Of course, as the German newspapers point out, the words we use to describe the situation come from Greek. Greece, they still maintain sorrowfully, is the cradle of Western culture and, because of that, was readily accepted by many as being core part of Europe unlike, say, the East European countries or the ones in the Balkans.

It is charmingly typical of Germans, who have produced some of the world’s greatest classicists, to feel so romantic about Greece. Without going into any discussion about the actuality of that Greek political culture – mostly the cities spent their time fighting each other with ever greater savagery – we can still point out that modern Greece has only tenuous links with Periclean Athens.

In fact, it is a Balkan country and some, though not all, of the East European countries are far more European in the modern sense of the word. In the post-Communist world the division between those that were part of the Ottoman Empire for a long time and those who were not or were only there relatively briefly has shown up very clearly.

It has also been pointed out to me that the division between the Western and the Eastern Churches, culturally and politically speaking, have also shown themselves up very clearly.

None of which should prevent Greece from becoming a genuinely modern European country with a relatively uncorrupt, transparent and accountable government. Sadly, the EU and its previous incarnations have not helped matters. By pouring enormous amounts of money in various kinds of aid – agricultural, structural, as a response to occasional need – it has merely exacerbated the corruption and the dependency mentality.

The result has been a great deal of hubris on the part of the Greeks that has now been followed by nemesis and, indeed, a catastrophe. Given that the EU is already gearing up to pouring money into the country and to using the situation for its own intergrationist purposes, which may or may not work out, the necessary catharsis will remain a long way off.

Strange bedfellows

Arguably one of the most corrupt MPs of a pretty corrupt bunch, hero of the hour is now Mr Keith Vaz, former Europe Minister, lauded in The Sun for calling on Brown to hold a referendum on the EU constitutional reform treaty.

Even the BBC has been forced to recognise the incongruity of such a development and The Daily Telegraph, once the strongest critic of the man, is giving him a run this morning, quoting him liberally. "As a former Minister for Europe," he is cited as saying, "I believe the time has come for the Government to hold a referendum and decide once and for all Britain's place is at the heart of Europe".

The Independent puts his statement in a wider focus, telling us that Brown is being urged to call a snap election this autumn, "in an attempt to defuse a row over Europe which threatens to divide Labour." Coming from the left wing press, this is the first real sign that unease in the Labour ranks is not simply a media storm cooked up by the right-wing press.

Says, The Independent, some of Brown's advisers are pressing the Prime Minister to seek his own mandate from the voters in October to head off demands by MPs in all parties for a referendum. One Labour source is cited as saying, "Europe is now a factor in the election decision."

We are told that supporters of an immediate poll argue that it would prevent the run-up to an election next May being overshadowed by a messy and divisive parliamentary battle to secure the passage of a Bill to implement the treaty. Apparently the putative rebellion is reviving memories of the bitter split among Tory MPs over Europe which destabilised John Major's government before the 1997 election.

Perhaps then it is more than a straw in the wind that The Telegraph is reporting that the arch Europhile foreign secretary David Miliband has refused to rule out a referendum.

This came in an interview with the website, when Miliband reaffirmed the government's view that the revised treaty was not the same as the defunct EU constitution rejected by Dutch and French voters in 2005. Then challenged to say there would definitely not be a referendum, he replied: "I'm repeating exactly what the Prime Minister said, which is that the constitution has been abandoned, that we're in a new situation and that parliamentary scrutiny is the way forward."

But, asked to say that there was no possibility of an eventual referendum, Mr Miliband repeatedly ducked the question. Instead, he suggested Labour was planning a co-ordinated campaign to persuade MPs and the public that the treaty was good for Britain.

Cue now The Daily Mail which offers as its lead editorial a strong piece, entitled, "Heading for another European stitch-up". Clearly borrowing from Booker's piece yesterday (which Open Europe somehow forgot to mention in its press round-up), it launches a sharp attack on Brown, a man who, the paper admits, it has "always felt considerable admiration".

"Amid slithery Blairite cynicism, he was notable for his moral seriousness," says the paper, "So what on earth possesses him to risk that hard-earned reputation by breaking Labour's manifesto pledge and refusing a referendum on whether Britain should hand even more power to Brussels?"

We are all waiting for an answer.


Wither Europe?

To give him his due, David Cameron has been consistent in his calls for an EU referendum and, although his own profile on the issue could have been higher, the visibility of the Party has been quite high.

Arguably, therefore, if the referendum was a burning concern with the electorate, one might have thought that it would be reflected in the opinion polls, in increasing support for the Tories.

That, however, is proving not to be. According to a YouGov poll for The Daily Telegraph, Cameron is facing a landslide defeat with Labour winning a majority of around 100 seats in the House of Commons if Gordon Brown called a snap general election

The survey shows Labour maintaining an eight-point lead over the Tories as Brown enters his third month as Prime Minister, with the poll putting Labour on 41 per cent (unchanged since July) with the Tories on 33 per cent (up one point).

Pundit Anthony King thinks this is "bad news for the Tories", but it isn't brilliant news for the referendum prospects either. Not least, if Cameron cannot see a potential electoral advantage in supporting the referendum, he may abandon any thought of campaigning heavily on the issue.

And, as if to confirm the poor ranking of the EU in the list of concerns, the latest ConservativeHome survey of party opinion had more than three times as many members chose the NHS (10 percent) as the number one decisive issue for voters as chose "Europe" (3 percent). Some 97 percent of members thought the NHS would be an important vote-moving-issue compared to 65 percent who said the same of Europe.

That, of course, may change as the date for IGC looms but, for the moment, the indications are that the electoral pull of the referendum is slight. The upside of this – if there is one – is that a general election is not a fair test of public sentiment on the EU, as it gets drowned out by other issues – even, as one ToryDairy commenter pointed out, the EU affects most UK domestic policy.

Bringing that home to ordinary electors, it would seem, must be something of a priority, if people are to get worked up about the referendum.


Thursday, August 30, 2007

It all went horribly wrong

I do not shed tears easily, but all of a sudden it gets too close.

The news today, from the MoD website is of a British Serviceman from 51 Squadron RAF Regiment killed, along with a civilian interpreter in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Two other Servicemen received minor injuries.

As always, the initial announcement is sparse in detail, this one stating that the dead solider was a gunner from 51 Squadron, RAF Regiment. Shortly after midnight local time, says the release, personnel from the Squadron were conducting a routine security patrol around Kandahar Airfield when one of their vehicles was caught in an explosion.

For reasons which will emerge from this piece, however, we happen to know that this was a mine strike. We also know that the crew were riding in a lightly armoured WIMIK Land Rover, just as was Lance Bombadier Ben Parkinson last year, when he sustained his terrible injuries, and Guardsman Neil "Tony" Downes who was killed in June.

What makes this tragedy so desperately poignant, however, is a series of recent events – the details of which are too convoluted to go into here – which culminated in my being sent an as yet unpublished feature story, recently written by free-lance journalist Nigel Green. And, by a ghastly coincidence, it was about the RAF Regiment's 51 Squadron, usually based at Lossiemouth, which has been in Kandahar since April.

Carrying detailed interviews of the men of the Squadron, the men spoke of the difficulties and dangers they encountered on patrol, but also spoke of the good they were doing and how morale was "pretty good". Concluding the piece, one soldier was quoted as saying:

Attacks on the base have tailed off because of the good work we've done. We have four weeks of the tour left and the last thing we want to do is to lose focus now. That's when it can go horribly wrong. The threat is real and we have to stay focussed right up to the end.
One of the soldiers who so freely gave of their thoughts, hopes and aspirations to Nigel Green is now dead. Dead - that final word, and with him an interpreter, whom the soldiers regarded as an indispensable part of the team.

It all went "horribly wrong".

However, not only did Nigel send me his story, generously he sent three high resolution photographs (two reproduced here) of one of 51 Squadron's patrols, showing clearly the WIMIK Land Rover, in which the two personnel have since died.

Last night, in the wee small hours, having read his feature story, I studied the photographs, thinking that tracks on which they were driving were ideal ground on which to place an anti-tank mine – where it would be impossible to detect visually any disturbance.

It also occurred to me that the reported recent reduction in attacks was no guide, as the Canadians found to their cost when, last June, they lost three men riding in an unarmoured, M-Gator multi-purpose vehicle (pictured). But what was both chilling and prescient about this incident was the report of Canadian journalist Paul Workman, who wrote:

…commanders obviously thought the area was safe enough to use such an exposed vehicle on a resupply mission. It seems likely that Taliban fighters were watching the Canadians and saw an easy target - an open vehicle with no armour and soldiers who were more or less defenceless against a hidden roadside bomb.
As I mulled over these issues, I recall thinking – only those few hours ago – that the soldiers had been very lucky and that it was only a matter of time before there was a tragedy. And, given the time difference, even as I was mulling over their prospects, those men must have already been dead.

The significance of that, when the news broke today, was almost unbearable. If I could see it, from my desk in a private house in West Yorkshire, what on earth were the local commanders doing sending their men out in these conditions, without the protection they need and deserve?

And here we go again. Within the last two days, I have written a piece about the US experience with Cougars – contrasted with the dangerously vulnerable WIMIK – and then about the life-saving Mastiff, which has protected soldiers from otherwise certain death from mine strikes. In this case, the obvious vehicle to have used would have been the RG-31 (pictured) or, perhaps the Bushmaster.

Last year, in July, I was writing in respect of the Pinzgauer Vector and its dangerous vulnerability, describing its selection as corporate manslaughter. But, what applies to Pinzgauers also applies to WIMIK Land Rovers. With their known vulnerabilities, in December 2006, I was writing that it was time to call a halt on deploying unarmoured vehicles, especially as it was then already known that the Taliban were planning to increase their use of mines, to demoralise troops (See also here).

For sure, that good men are now dead is primarily the responsibility of the insurgents. But there is no shred of doubt that, had they been properly protected, they would still be alive. Their protection is a matter for the Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Des Browne, the Minister for Defence Procurement, Lord Drayson, the Professional Head of the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, and the many others who regard the WIMIK as "world class equipment". These are guilty men – guilty of corporate manslaughter.

And how many more good men are they going to allow to die?


It really isn't going away

It was yesterday in The Daily Telegraph that Irwin Stelzer ventured: "Brown can't be bullied into a referendum".

This is "one issue", on which Brown feels no need to walk a line, we are told. He is convinced that the British opt-outs mean that no transfer of sovereignty is involved, and that therefore Labour's referendum pledge is inoperative. Furthermore, Labour MPs who think they can shake him had better have a re-think. Besides, the PM can put this issue to rest by stating in the new manifesto that he intends to have Parliament decide.

And even those voters who know he is wrong will make their decisions based on other issues. So the Prime Minister believes. And since he is a man who keeps his "eyes wide open all the time", he might well be right.

One thing for sure, Brown is unlikely to be impressed by the news that some Liberal Democrats may join the Labour rebels, not least because Menzies Campbell, their leader, is all over the place, and their vote seems to be falling apart in the polls. The words "busted" and "flush" come to mind.

Nevertheless, we are beginning to see some strange bedfellows rallying to the flag (if you can rally to the flag while in bed), with David Blunkett joining the fray. Apparently he has "stoked Labour divisions over Europe" by challenging Gordon Brown to explain why he was denying the British people a referendum on the treaty.

Certainly, Brown needs to do that, as the "constitutional concept has been abandoned" mantra is getting more than a little tedious. Blunkett, therefore, strikes a chord when he says that Brown and his ministers had "a long way to go" before they had provided "a proper answer" to the growing number of Labour MPs, unions and members of the public demanding a referendum.

Whether Brown can cope with his opposition lounging in bed, while rallying to the flag, joining the fray and striking chords, is another matter. If the arguments don't get him, the lethal battery of mixed metaphors will.

Anyhow, if Stelzer is downbeat, in today's Daily Mail, Booker provides an antidote, with a long op-ed declaring, "The EU constitution is one of the biggest political gambles Mr Brown could make".

"Something very odd has been going on in Britain this August," writes Booker. "Ever more people - including, we are told, more than 100 of his own MPs - have been waking up to the realisation that our Prime Minister Gordon Brown is attempting to get away with one of the most shameless and fraudulent gambles in our political history."

His gamble is that, "so long as we remain in ignorance as to what is really at stake, we will not care enough to stop him getting his way." But the fact is that:

…he wants to give away powers which do not belong to him or to Parliament but to all of us. That he is prepared to do so without consulting us - and on the basis of lies and broken promises - should make us all so angry that he cannot get away with it.
Angry indeed we are – some of us. And if the issue has struggled through the "silly season" to emerge intact on the other side, that alone tells us that it is not going to go away.

Even despite the stupidity of the Tory slogan – "Don't Let Brown Let EU Down" – so stupid that even Iain Dale has noticed, there are growing indications that Brown has a fight on his hands.


The other surge

No, not the US forces in Baghdad but the world price of wheat, which is also undergoing a surge. According to Reuters, the world markets, already at their highest for more than a decade after bad weather hit crops, show no sign of retreat and are feeding fear of food price inflation.

Since April, there has been price hike of some 75 percent on both sides of the Atlantic after a dry northern hemisphere spring turned into a wet early summer, reducing harvest expectations. To add to the general woes, southern hemisphere crops are suffering from a bout of dryness.

This is happening at a time when world stockpiles are at their lowest for 25 years and the International Grain Council has cut its estimate for 2007/08 world wheat output by seven million tons to 607 million, the EU crop estimate also falling to 114.1 million tons from 118.9 million a month ago. On the other hand, demand is at its highest, driven partly by the growing market for biofuels.

Yet, come the autumn, the Commission is still expecting produce its proposals for a 20 percent renewable energy quota, which is expected to include a commitment to a ten percent EU-wide biofuels quota.

All of a sudden, reality is neck-and-neck with fantasy, so it is going to be fascinating to see which crosses the finishing line first. On past form, the betting should be on fantasy, which means we could be in very serious trouble, faster than we think.


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

These men should be dead

Anyone unfortunate enough to listen to the intolerably smug Eddie Mair on the PM programme yesterday, when he interviewed the forces minister Bob Ainsworth, may have recognised a common BBC technique.

Ostensibly, the interview was about the unfortunate Ben Parkinson. He had suffered terrible injuries when the WIMIK Land Rover in which he had been riding had been hit by a mine, and had since been awarded what was described as "paltry damages".

But, from the way Mair conducted his line of questioning of the minister, it was easy to discern that he wanted one thing – a personal admission from the minister that he thought the level of compensation awarded was "inadequate" – the game here to capture a damaging sound bite that could then be used on subsequent news bulletins, and perhaps be picked up by the print media.

So obsessed with his little game was Mair that he failed to pick up an outrageous assertion made by Ainsworth. The minister had it that the reason soldiers like Ben Parkinson were surviving was "better armoured vehicles", which allowed them to survive when, previously, they would have been killed.

Yet, as even the Daily Mail story made clear, Parkinson was riding in an "unprotected Land Rover". Ainsworth's point, which has some general validity, was wholly untrue in this incident. Had the soldier been riding in a properly protected vehicle, he would have been uninjured, and would still be serving in the Army.

That we can make such an assertion with such confidence stems from a remarkable report in The Northern Echo which features three soldiers (pictured above) who, "owe their lives to a new £500,000 vehicle". They were all in Mastiff armoured personnel carriers when they hit landmines or were attacked by Taliban fighters with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

One solider, Private Stephen Mac-Lauchlan, from York, survived four RPGs hitting his vehicle. One struck the windscreen and exploded, but failed to penetrate the toughened 6in glass. Another hit armour on the side of the vehicle and exploded harmlessly, while the other two hit the fuel tank, but only left it badly dented. Said Pte MacLauchlan, "If I had been in any other armoured personnel carrier, I would almost certainly be dead now."

Pte Lee Ashton, on the other hand, was on a mission to supply food and water to frontline troops, when his vehicle hit an anti-tank mine. He said: "It blew the front tyre off and the wheel arch, but it kept driving. It just felt like we had hit a huge pothole. I only realised we had hit a mine when I saw the tyre was off. A big cloud of dust came in through the vents into the cab. The man on top-cover then shouted that we had hit a mine. "It was a big anti-tank mine and if I had been in any other vehicle, I would probably be dead."

Then there was Pte Lee Jones, 24, from Penrith, Cumbria. He was also in a Mastiff when it hit an anti-tank mine. He said: "There was big explosion and a lot of dust. It lifted the vehicle between seven and 8ft. It was like a car crash. It blew the front wheels off, but this vehicle is brilliant. It saved my life. It has saved a lot of lives."

Even without these accounts, though, we already had good evidence of the life-saving role of these vehicles. Thus armed, I placed a post on the PM blog. It says everything about the BBC that, with now 47 comments posted on the blog, the comment that went against the narrative and pointed out that Mair had failed to task the minister with an obvious untruth, did not get published. Thou shalt not criticise the BBC.

Therein lies the true dereliction of the BBC. Mair had an opportunity to point out that life-saving technology was available and was not used, but squandered it in his attempt to score a cheap point against the minister. Then his dire organisation covers up for him and hides criticism from the public gaze.

Unfortunately, it is not only the Beeb which so singularly fails to hit the mark. A few days ago, the noble Rees Mogg held forth in The Times on the theme," Blood on a budget: our soldiers betrayed". Amongst his priceless observations was this:

Throughout the Iraq war, our Forces have been short of suitable armoured vehicles. For years, the Basra Palace run had to be performed in vulnerable Snatch vehicles; these have only recently been replaced by the Warrior, which is itself vulnerable to roadside bombs. Unlike American vehicles, the Warrior is not air-conditioned and can get unbearably hot in the sun.
The noble Lord is, or course, misinformed. The "Snatch" Land Rovers were not replaced by Warriors but by Mastiffs (which are, incidentally, air-conditioned). The trouble is that there are not enough of them, or their equivalents, so soldiers are still riding and dying in Snatches. Meanwhile, men are also dying or being horribly injured in less protected WIMIK Land Rovers in Afghanistan, and in the equally useless Pinzgauer Vector.

Furthermore, while the noble Lord complains that, "Treasury parsimony can cost lives," somewhere in England there are now stored 401 entirely useless Italian-built Panther Command and Liaison Vehicles. Ordered in November 2003, in preference to the RG-31, this batch was priced at £166 million - equating to £413,000 for each vehicle – a sum that would have bought anther 300 Mastiffs or a greater number of RG-31s. It is by no means only Treasury parsimony that is the problem.

Nevertheless, this does not inhibit Rees Mogg from intoning that, "Soldiers do not object to being sent to war as such. They do object to having to fight without the best equipment and support…". He is partly right, but soldiers also need the support of the media – an informed media.

To be fair, The Sunday Times and The Sunday Telegraph did play their part in bringing the current batch of Mastiffs to theatre. Because of that, three young men who, by their own estimation, should be dead, are now alive. But, if the smug little Eddie Mair's of this world - and the pompous Rees Moggs – did their jobs properly and also supported our troops, there would be more men alive today and even more uninjured.

So it is that this blog, which should be spending its time fighting for an EU referendum, is devoting time and space to this issue. Perforce, we will continue to do so, until this matter is resolved.

Troop photograph copyright: Nigel Green Media. Supplied FOC to this blog, with many thanks.


Work in progress

Readers will notice that EU Referendum has been undergoing a makeover, upgrading our image to make it a little more professional.

Inevitably, some difficulties may be experienced in viewing the new layout so I am opening a thread on the forum so that readers can report any problems.


What are we to make of this?

An interesting little item in the Jerusalem Post this morning (we look far and wide for the instruction and delectation of our readers): Palestinian Authority officials have told the newspaper that EU security officials have been conducting secret talks with Hamas.

There is no further detailed information although “sources close to Hamas” have confirmed this.
"We hope these talks will be the first step toward ending the boycott of Hamas, which came to power in a free and democratic election," the sources told the Post."There is growing awareness among the Europeans of the fact that Hamas can't be ignored as a major player in the Palestinian arena."
Javier Solana’s spokesperson is not exactly denying the story but saying that his office is not aware of any meetings of this kind though Señor Solana himself will soon be paying one of his routine and pointless visits to the area. (That is not how the spokesperson put it but we are justified in adding those comments.)

The Israeli government also professes itself to be unaware of the discussion.

So, what are we to make of this? First of all, it could be a complete invention or it could be that the “officials” in question are too low-grade to merit much attention. Then again, as one reads the article, one realizes that there is a certain confusion between EU and Member States.
The PA officials did not reveal the identity of the visitors, except to say that they belonged to three EU intelligence services.
So, in actual fact, these are intelligence or security officers of three of the EU Member States. Were they talking to Hamas on behalf of their own countries or, as the EU3 who had negotiated so successfully with Iran, as representatives of the Union? They love the number 3 in the EU and one wonders whether these were the representatives of the troika – previous, present and next Presidency?

Another interesting aspect of the story is the sight of the Palestinian Authority briefing the Israeli media against Hamas. “And always keep a-hold of nurse/For fear of finding something worse.”

A few empty soundbites

Peter Riddell in The Times this morning seems to agree with Tory Diary that the worst is over for Cameron. This is not least because of his Party's stance on the EU referendum, where Labour ministers, "have appeared to be reacting, rather than setting the agenda."

That the ground is slipping away is presumably what has brought arch-Europhile, MEP Richard Corbett out of the woodwork, with a piece in the Guardian's "comment is free" slot. But, if there was a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the number of lies and half truths that can be packed into a piece of text, Corbett would be the world record holder.

For instance, in June, says Corbett, "the 27 EU heads of government agreed a mandate to draw up a reform treaty that will replace the abandoned constitutional treaty." Er, no. In June, the European Council agreed a mandate, instructing the heads of government to draw up a treaty which is now called, misleadingly, a "reform" treaty.

The treaty does not exactly replace the "abandoned constitutional treaty". It effectively duplicates it or, to be more precise, amends the existing treaties to produce a document that is, to all intents and purposes, the constitutional treaty. Thus, the constitutional treaty has not been abandoned. It has simply been arrived at by a different route.

But, says Corbett, "the most controversial elements of the latter have been dropped." Well, the flag, the EU anthem and the motto have been dropped. Controversial? Maybe, but will the EU stop using its flag, anthem and motto? Er, no. As for whether these were the "most controversial aspects of the treaty", that is a matter of opinion – and a minority one at that. Many people think that the whole treaty is controversial. Certainly, even with the tiny parts of the original missing, it is still controversial.

And now for the big lie: "The proposed reform treaty will instead focus on modest adjustments to the existing EU system." But, since the constitutional treaty is almost entirely intact (with some additions, like turning the ECB into a Union institution), how can this justify claiming that the new treaty will now merely "focus on modest adjustments" to the existing EU system?

Yet, observes Corbett – i.e., despite the new treaty merely "focusing on modest adjustments" - "some are still advocating a referendum".

Oddly enough, in June 2005, Corbett complained about an attack by The Times on his beloved constitution: "No attempt at argument, no analysis or discussion … Trashing the EU constitution with a few empty soundbites …".

But, when it comes to trashing those whom he happily refers to as "Europhobes", it seems that it is perfectly acceptable to rely on "a few empty soundbites".


Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Clashing ideas

It is a little hard to understand some of the kerfuffle around the election of Abdullah Gül as Turkey’s new president. One can quite understand the Turks being a little wary and the army casually mentioning that they do have a role in the Turkish constitution as its guardian and promoter. In fact, military commanders were absent from the swearing in of the President.

In the first place I find it hard to understand why there were no candidates apart from Gül. In the circumstances everybody knew that he would not go through on the first two rounds because his party did not have the required majority but would do so on the third round.

According to Al-Jazeera, Gül’s wife, she of the elegant silk headscarf, also stayed away, leaving us all with the question of how exactly they are going to resolve the problem of women not being allowed to wear headscarves in public buildings in Turkey. Will the new President and his wife pretend that it is merely a fashion statement?

Gül is being described variously as “the first former Islamist to win the post in Turkey's modern history” and as a “a devout Muslim with a background in political Islam”. While it is not impossible to be both there do seem to be certain difficulties in the way.

Then again, President Gül’s first statement made it clear that he does not intend to undermine the Turkish constitution or its secular state. Zaman reports that in an essay just before the fully predicted election
Gül also gave two basic goals for Turkey's foreign policy vision: "The first target is to become an integral part of the European Union. Full membership to the EU does not set an alternative to Turkey's powerful transatlantic bonds and its strategic ties with the US. The second target is to create an environment of security, stability, welfare, friendship and cooperation in the areas surrounding the country, located as it is in the natural center of the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Black Sea, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Europe, which all have an important place in Turkey's foreign policy."
Whether the first of those is feasible or not remains to be seen. President Sarkozy, for one, intends to make sure that every difficulty is piled in Turkey’s way. Nor is it entirely clear whether it is possible to be an integral part of the European Union (is that the same as being a Member State or are the Turks playing a little game here) and keep those powerful transatlantic ties, though the East European countries seem to be doing all right on that.

The second goal can be described as motherhood and apple-pie stuff but it is interesting that the new President is using language that is a far cry from what one would expect from an Islamist, even a former Islamist.

It is no secret to those few who read my postings on this blog that I do tend to root for Turkey, partly because I find the country and its history fascinating and partly because it is a deliberately secular Muslim country. It is not the only one with a more or less democratic constitution – Jordan is one and both Malaysia and Indonesia are close – but it is the one that may show the way forward for other countries, such as Iraq.

If a religious Muslim can be the President of a secularist Islamic country without upsetting that balance, it will be a big step for all of us towards some sort of a settlement across the former Ottoman Empire.

Then again, the fears of the secularists are not surprising and the army might still play the Joker.

Meanwhile, President Sarkozy, Rambo in the Elysée, as Spiegel describes him, has been musing on his 100 days (a little more successful than Napoleon’s were) though he does seem to spend a good deal of time on holiday, as the dissident frogman points out.

He has been coy about Turkish membership, which may have repercussions in Turkey but then, if he welcomed it, there would have been repercussions in France, the last thing Sarko wants as he pretends that the French vote against the European Constitution was of no significance.
In the speech, he also called on the European Union to adopt a more unified and bolder security strategy. He suggested that he might support Germany's bid to be secure a seat on the United Nations Security Council. He also chided Russia for using a "certain brutality" in its political use of energy supplies, and he urged the international community to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear arms.
According to Deutsche Welle, as reported by Focus Information Agency, “Sarkozy said Japan, India and Brazil should also be granted permanent seats”. Quite right, too. The more countries have permanent seats the less that pesky Security Council will be able to decide on anything. And the more difficult it will be for the likes of Lord Malloch-Brown to advocate a seat for the European Union.



According to the National Iraqi News Agency, seven Katyusha rockets have been launched into Basra airport, home to the largest number of British troops in Iraq. Eye witnesses described the Katyusha strike as "severe".

British forces, says the Agency, have so far refused to provide any comments regarding the event.

Of course not! You wouldn't want the terrorists to know that the base had been attacked, would you?

Imagine this was a "Snatch"

So writes one of our readers who has sent us a remarkable sequence of photographs (see also more here) of a USMC Cougar mine resistant and ambush protected (MRAP) vehicle after it had been hit by a very substantial IED in Iraq. The crew escaped with only minor injuries and no one was killed, even though the blast ripped the engine from its armoured bay and hurled it over 100 yards (see below).

Sadly, we do not need to imagine what would have happened if the soldiers had been riding in a Land Rover. Today, the Daily Mail records the horrific injuries sustained by Lance Bombadier Ben Parkinson. He was riding in a Land Rover - not a "Snatch", but an even more vulnerable "WIMIK" - in Afghanistan when it was blown up by a landmine in September last year near Musa Qaleh in Helmand Province, while serving with the 7th Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery.

In this incident, it appears that no one was killed, although it was only through heroic medical intervention that Lance Bombadier Parkinson's life was saved. Nevertheless, he lost both his legs and sustained grievous damage to his spine, skull, pelvis, hands, spleen and ribcage, leaving him in a coma for months. But, with no death, the incident was not reported by the MoD. All we know from MoD Sources is that, in that month, ten soldiers were seriously injured, of which seven came into the "very serious" category.

That the Land Rovers have proved dangerously fragile is evidenced by a piece we wrote in May of this year when we recorded that the Army has been losing an average of one per week of the lightly armoured WIMIK Land Rovers in Helmand and, in April, the Marines of 42 Commando lost four vehicles in a single day during an advance on Sangin. All were the victims of mine strikes. In that month of May, 38 soldiers were recorded as being wounded in action, of which 14 were "seriously injured".

Then, in June, we recorded the death of Guardsman Neil "Tony" Downes, in Afghanistan. He was riding in a WIMIK Land Rover when his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb. Four other soldiers were injured in the incident.

Only ten days ago, courtesy of The Yorkshire Post, we were recording how soldiers were fixing makeshift armour plates to the sides of their vehicles in a bid to gain extra protection.

Despite the deployment of a small number of Mastiff protected patrol vehicles (based on the Cougar), troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq are still being killed and horribly injured in military Land Rovers, and even in the poorly protected Pinzgauer Vector.

In Afghanistan, we have twice spotted the US deployment of Cougar vehicles (here and here), demonstrating their utility in theatre but, while other coalition forces continue to equip their forces with protected vehicles, only the British seem to believe that riding around in lightly armoured Land Rovers is a good idea.

It should be noted that the thrust of the Daily Mail story is about the paltry compensation Ben Parkinson has been offered for his ruined life, a mere £152,150, less than a third of the £484,000 doled out to an RAF typist who claimed she had suffered repetitive strain injury to her thumb. Rightly, the paper is bringing this to public attention and it is also right that there have been strong crusades about the treatment of our injured personnel.

I just wish, however, that a little more attention and effort was given to preventing our personnel from getting injured and killed.

Click each pic to enlarge.


Oh dear, they've noticed

[Health warning: this is not a Toy posting. There will be no mention of Toys in this piece. Some of our readers might, therefore, decide to skip this. But, let me repeat: there will be no Toys.]

Just recently we have noticed that there is excitement abroad (in every sense of the word) about the Euroblogosphere. It is being discussed and analyzed in a way it has not been before.

Euractiv has produced a list of blogs that might be considered to be relevant with, as you would expect it, heavy emphasis on the more official “clogs” (corporate blogs) – Commissars, members of the Toy Parliament and journalists – but there are some blogs, including this one, that are outside the Pale.

It may be that the opinion, frequently voiced by us, that it will be the issue of further European integration and the future of the European Union (short, we hope) that will make the blogosphere on this side of the Pond as important politically as it has been for some time in the United States is now shared by the Euro-establishment.

Scholars at the University of Hamburg are labouring on a more profound sociological and philosophical analysis of the blogosphere and its possible developments and outcomes. Their, possibly interim, conclusion is interesting in the way it tries to come to terms with a basically unknown and uncontrollable force:
In conclusion, it is not in the hands of the EU to organize the Euroblogosphere but it is in its hands to provide a basis for this partial public sphere to grow, fostering collective incentives, which are fundamental for the development of collective action and community. Doing this is one of the necessary steps that the EU has to take if it wants to act according to its motto of “closing the gap” between citizens and European institutions.
Earlier paragraphs make it clear that the opinion of this paper is that the importance or otherwise of blogs depends entirely on the attitude taken by the various governing strata who are encouraged to use the blogosphere for their own purposes. Can’t help feeling that these people are in for a shock.

My colleague and I have been wondering whether it is entirely a coincidence that so soon after we have found these and other discussions, there have been two (so far) perfectly courteous messages telling us about projects and websites that are supposedly “discussing” the European project though not quite as openly as we are.

One link, sent to our forum by a delightful new correspondent, is to a site called Tomorrow’s Europe, which is running a discussion forum at the European Parliament in September. The participants will be “a truly representative sample of ordinary citizens from all 27 countries in the EU”, 400 in number, the population of the EU being around 490 million. And, of course, the 400 will have no personal views or agendas of their own at all.

Let me add that the main organizer of Tomorrow’s Europe is Notre Europe, the think-tank set up by Jacques Delors, the last talented President of the European Commission and one of the sponsors, indeed the main organizational one, is George Soros’s Open Society Institute from which Lord Malloch-Brown has probably resigned. (It is good to have all one's enemies in one basket, so to speak.)

(Actually, I am not sure what happened there but the original idea had been to bring together 500 representative ordinary citizens. That 100 might have made all the difference. What went wrong? Were they purged for saying the wrong thing and supporting Snowball instead of Napoleon?)

We have also received an e-mail about another website in the making that is set to advocate the advantages of no borders in Europe. Having spent some of my life traveling round the place, I can appreciate that notion, though I should like to point out that travel across Europe was very easy before the First World War (unless one ran into a revolution or some local massacre) so there is nothing terribly new in the idea of borders being unimportant.

Its not totally literate mission statement reads:
In a rapidly changing environment where high mobility is a key element of success and where the post war cooperation initiatives in Europe have generated dynamics of peace and mutual understanding, we anticipate a trully united European continent without borders and without barriers of any kind.

We pledge to work hard on raising awareness on the benefits of a borderless Europe and broadcasting the will of the people of Europe towards the higher levels of administration.
There is a forum but it is not fully functional yet. We are looking forward to the developments in Europe/no-borders.

In the meantime, we can but smile at the thought of all these groups, organizations, academic seminars, old Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all getting so excited and worried about the euroblogosphere. Long may that continue.


The "pros" have it

Quick off the mark, the Telegraph has on its website the contemptuous arrogance of David Miliband, our Europhile foreign secretary, under the headline, "Government defies rebels on EU referendum".

He is holding the line that there will be "no referendum", even despite "revelations in the Daily Telegraph that 120 Labour MPs now want a public vote."

The rebuff – entirely predictable, of course – came on this morning’s Today programme, with Miliband still lamely claiming that the new treaty was different in "absolute essence" from the defunct EU constitution. On that basis, the government was not obliged to follow through on its manifesto pledge to hold a referendum.

"We have not got a European constitution," said Miliband. "Twenty-seven European heads of government all signed a document in June, after nearly two years of negotiation, saying the constitutional concept has been abandoned."

He added: "I think that as Parliament gets to grips with the reform treaty that comes out, as they look line by line, they will see first that it is good for Britain, second that it is very different from the constitution in absolute essence, and third that the red lines, the key national interests in foreign policy and other areas of the UK have been protected."

In the print edition, the Telegraph follows through with a strong leader, noting that "Gordon Brown's fabled strengths as a political strategist are about to be tested to breaking point," following the revelation "that as many as 120 backbench Labour MPs (apparently with the tacit support of some ministers) support the call for a referendum on the EU reform treaty". It presents the prime minister, says the paper, "with a serious challenge to his authority. A rebellion on that scale would mean that he could not carry the House of Commons."

We do hope the paper is right but, even if it is flying a kite, if it keeps "banging on", the wish could become the reality.

And, "banging on" is precisely what David Cameron is doing in The Sun, with an authored piece headed: "Labour promised vote on EU". "What makes you think you can break your promises to the British people?" he asks, adding, "And what makes you think you can change the way our country is governed without asking the British people first?" The simple answer to both questions says Cameron is, "Arrogance".

Got it in one. It's the arrogance that says: "We, the powerful elites, know best... It's the arrogance that puts more and more decisions in the hands of bureaucrats that no one's ever heard of and no one can ever get rid of if they do a bad job. And it’s the arrogance that Gordon Brown displays when he says we don't need a referendum on the European constitution."

If the Boy keeps on in this vein, there is a serious danger that his Party might get elected to government. Brown cannot afford to ignore this style of attack.

The Daily Mail also pitches in, with a story following in the wake of The Telegraph, headed, "Brown under pressure as more than 100 Labour MPs back EU referendum", and also follows through with a leader bearing the simple message: Let Britain decide.

Compared with the fatuous intervention from The Financial Times and the silence of the left-wing media, on this day it is fair to say that the pro-referendum campaign has it.


Misguided we ain't

In a way, the balance of coverage on this blog reflects the real world. By preference, we would rather spend our time and (limited) energies on the issues that really matter – such as the war on terror, to which this writer devoted most of his time yesterday, and the diverse subjects on which my co-editor so eloquently writes.

But, as in the real world, other matters intrude, not least the stultifying, looming presence of the European Union and the poxy European integrationalists who, like fractious, spoilt children, demand our attention when all we really want is for them to go away - permanently.

So it is that we are dragged back, reluctantly to the spoilt brats, this time in the form of a leader from The Financial Times which, showing its true Europhile colours, is telling us that, "EU referendum calls are misguided".

It starts in true typical style, with the sweeping declaration that, "Most generals avoid fighting the last war," then grandly declaring that, "The motley band calling for a referendum in Britain on the European Union's constitutional treaty has failed to learn this." Twisting the knife, it then pronounces that, "Its campaign is misguided," magnanimously conceding that, "it deserves better than the government's fumbling response to date."

How wonderfully lofty is that grand statement, "motley band", the writer in two words describing the bulk of the British print media, the Conservative Party, UKIP and its million-plus voters, and the dozens of other organisations and hundreds of thousands of non-aligned individuals, all of whom have but one thing in common, the desire to avoid still further European integration.

A less civilised individual than this writer might want to rip the throat out of the purveyor of such a lofty phrase, and then feed it back in small chunks, through his backside. But such thoughts will never find a home in this refined and considered blog. Instead, wearily, we trudge through the leaden arguments, instinctively feeling our own readership melt away as they dive for cover at the prospect of yet more dissection of leaden Euro-guff.

As they so often do, the FT writer starts off with a straw man, with which to beat down his "misguided" opponents. According to them, we are informed, "the new treaty marks another giant stride towards a European superstate." And, of course, "This is fantasy."

Actually, "superstate" is a misleading word and, although many Eurosceptics use it, it is not given much currency here. In fact, we wish Eurosceptics would avoid it, if for no other reason than its use gives pompous Europhiles the opportunity of denial.

Venturing into that territory, though, we are advised that, "There is no provision for grand projects such as the single market, monetary union or a common foreign and security policy as set out in the Single European Act or the Maastricht treaty – neither of which attracted a referendum."

It was all a terrible mistake "in the drafting process" to promote the new treaty as a constitution per se. "The result was disastrous, seemingly accelerating the integration process at a time when the public was begging for the brake. In a moment of weakness, Tony Blair, former UK prime minister, conceded a referendum, forcing others to follow suit."

However, all is now well:

After two resounding Nos in France and the Netherlands, EU leaders have removed the trappings of a constitution. There is no more EU anthem. Brussels has a high representative for foreign affairs and security policy – not a foreign minister. Instead of spelling out that EU law has primacy over national law, the treaty merely refers to "well settled case law". Britain has won a protocol insisting that it cannot be used to challenge UK laws: this adds to UK opt-outs, including on monetary union.
Nevertheless, says the FT, "Britain's Eurosceptics are right to claim that the substance of the treaty remains largely intact." To pretend otherwise, as the government has sought to do, is disingenuous. But the treaty is a tidying-up exercise. It does not disturb the hybrid nature of the EU, which balances intergovernmental co-operation with supranational powers.

Heh! The famous "tidying-up exercise". They just can't resist it. No matter how many times you bat them down, up they pop, like one of those wobbly dolls with the weighted base, back with the same tired, lame phrases. What was that about, "Most generals avoid fighting the last war"?

Anyhow, the real lie is in the last sentence: "It does not disturb the hybrid nature of the EU, which balances intergovernmental co-operation with supranational powers." It does – it really does. But the trouble is that the moment you mention the words "intergovernmental" and "supranational", the eyes of human beings glaze over and you have lost them. People neither know nor care what you are talking about - not if they still have the will to live.

The thing is, we did the intergovernmental or "cooperation" bit way back in June 2004. What we wrote then still applies now, only in spades, with the incorporation of the European Council as an institution of the Union.

But what we are seeing is an example of the way the Europhile mind works: just keep taking the mantras. Eventually your opposition will give up, bludgeoned to death by the sheer boredom of it all.

But, the fact is, that the sequential treaties of the integrationalists are a process, one of continual progress towards the end goal of a supreme, supranational government of Europe. And that word, "supranational" says it all. It means "above the nation", i.e., superior to it. Forget "superstate". The EU is a "super-government", only it is pronounced supra. With this treaty, the Europhiles are that closer to their goal.

All the rest is fluff, but it does not deter the FT writer from coming to his leaden conclusion: those calling for a referendum, including the opposition Conservatives, claim they are acting on principle, "But their ultimate goal is either withdrawal or a do-nothing Union." Neither, we are told, "serves the national interest".

Therein, lies the ultimate paradox, and the fatal flaw in the Europhile case. The very essence of "supranational" is inimical to the interests of the "national". By its very nature, it is the diametrical opposite. Hence, the desperate need to pretend that the EU will retain "intergovernmental" characteristics.

And, being a "motley band", we are not supposed to know the difference. But, motley or not, we do. And misguided, we ain't.


Monday, August 27, 2007

What to make of this?

Something I've been watching since yesterday, in the hope of clarification, is the situation in the Provincial Joint Co-ordination Centre (PJCC) in Basra, which British Forces evacuated on Saturday evening.

Not exactly a base, this is a centre manned by Iraqi police, at which the Army has maintained a contingent of 50-60 troops. Neither has the presence been entirely without trauma. It was here in June that Major Paul Harding was killed as a result of an "indirect fire attack".

Anyhow, according to the MoD, the forces have been "moved" from the PJCC "in the framework of the plan for the handover of the Basra Palace to Iraqi control." And, according to The Independent the "retreat" descended into chaos when, as soon as the British left, Shia militia occupied the centre.

This paper's report, apparently based on AP copy – also retailed by IHT - has it that the remaining Iraqi police left when the Shia fighters arrived and began emptying the facility. "According to witnesses," we are told, "they made off with generators, computers, furniture and even cars, saying it was war booty - and were still in the centre yesterday evening."

With the centre previously having come under attack by the militias, the withdrawal is being seen as yet another victory for Moqtada al-Sadr, who has been claiming credit for driving British out of Basra. Certainly, The Independent is quick to claim that the militia occupation, "further undermines Britain's hopes of a smooth transfer and gives the impression of a rout."

However, while The Scotsman is also reporting a militia take-over, the MoD is denying this claim. And, in this, it seems to be supported by Reuters which is stating that Iraqi police thwarted the attempt at a take-over.

The agency cites Basra police spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Abdul-Kareem al-Zaidi, who says that militiamen had tried to invade the centre, "possibly to ransack it" but that the situation was resolved peacefully after a delegation from the militia held talks with officials.

We also get a spokesman for Moqtada al-Sadr saying that a group of Mehdi Army militiamen loyal to Sadr had gathered in front of the PJCC and chanted victory slogans before withdrawing peacefully.

Now, from a the BBC website we read of "confused reports" about who now controls the police headquarters. British spokesman Major Michael Shearer claims that officers from the Multi-National Force spoke to the local Iraqi Army commander who "assured us that the PJCC is under his control and being efficiently run by the Iraqi Army." He is also said to have stated that, "all the equipment remains within the PJCC".

An MoD spokesman also says there was a green Shia flag flying on the building, but not the black flag associated with the Mahdi Army.

So, as to what precisely is going on, we do not really know. But what comes over is that neither does the British Army, which is reliant on reports from third parties which may or may not be true. Whatever else, that does seem to indicate that there is yet another residual area of Basra over which it has lost control.

Meanwhile, with the retreat withdrawal from Basra Palace imminent, the Christian Science Monitor is claiming that British commanders have struck a deal with leaders of Moqtada al-Sadr's 17,000-strong Mahdi Army to ensure their safe departure. It appears that this included the release of more than two dozen Mahdi Army prisoners.

One of those released is Sajad Abu Aya, the head of the Mahdi Army in Basra province, who, when he was captured in July last year in a major raid, "was strongly suspected of involvement in planning and directing terrorist attacks on civilians in Basra, executions, and attacks on coalition forces." His arrest last year was hailed as a coup by British forces during their offensive against militias in the city as part of Operation Sinbad.

As Sajad revels in his freedom and the British prepare to depart to their last redoubt at Basra Air Station, it is increasingly difficult to accept this final stage of our occupation of Basra as anything other than a continuation of the retreat started in al Amarah last year.


We are not wrong

When, like this blog, we are so often far out on a limb, discussing ideas that no one else seems to be looking at – with critics lining up to pick holes in the arguments or tell us we've simply got it wrong (as they did when we advocated better armoured vehicles for our troops in Iraq), the sheer weight of contrary opinion, combined with the isolation, does make you seriously question your own arguments (and even your own sanity).

Readers' comments on the forum and the steady flow of supportive e-mails, therefore, do give us an important boost and help us keep going. And, in this case, several have sent me a link from the excellent military site, Strategy Page, headed: "Blackwater Buys Brazilian Bombers". It is fairly short, so I reproduce it here in full:

Security company Blackwater USA. is buying several Super Tucano light combat aircraft from the Brazilian manufacturer Embraer. These five ton, single engine, single seat aircraft are built for pilot training, but also perform quite well for counter-insurgency work.

The Super Tucano is basically a prop driven trainer that is equipped for combat missions. The aircraft can carry up to 1.5 tons of weapons, including 12.7mm machine-guns, bombs and missiles. The aircraft cruises at about 300 knots and can stay in the air for about 6.5 hours per sortie. One of the options is a FLIR (infrared radar that produces a photo realistic video image in any weather) and a fire control system for bombing.

Colombia is using the Super Tucanos for counter-insurgency work (there are over 20,000 armed rebels and drug gang gunmen in the country). The aircraft is also used for border patrol. The U.S. Air Force is watching that quite closely. The Super Tucano costs $9 million each, and come in one or two seat versions. The bubble canopy provides excellent visibility. This, coupled with its slow speed (versus jets), makes it an excellent ground attack aircraft.

Blackwater already has a force of armed helicopters in Iraq, and apparently wants something a little faster, and more heavily armed, to fulfil its security contracts overseas.
One of our readers noted that this was private enterprise scoring again, and indeed it is. The company has a major operation in Iraq and consistently leaves the traditional military flat-footed, trailing in its wake when it comes to innovation, flexibility and economy.

While the British Army was still pratting about equipping its troops with desperately vulnerable "Snatch" Land Rovers, Blackwater was equipping its people with the highly protected Mamba mine protected vehicles – ironically purchased second-hand, for a song, from the British Army after it had failed to see their potential for high-risk tasks in Southern Iraq.

The vehicles operated by Blackwater sustained several IED hits, their occupants escaping without injury, an experience which indicates that, had the criminally stupid fools geniuses in the MoD and Army kept hold of the vehicles and used them properly, a number of soldiers who were killed in "Snatch" Land Rovers would be alive today.

Similarly, while the Army is messing about with limited numbers of useless Lynx helicopters (useless because they cannot fly in the heat of the Iraqi summer) - and are proposing to buy the obscenely expensive Future Lynx at an average cost of £14 million - Blackwater have been successfully operating a version of the MD 500 helicopter, for convoy escort duties and as a light, tactical gunship.

In the latter role, compared with the Army's Apache assault helicopters – more than a quarter of which are currently grounded through lack of spares – the Apache cost £60 million each, while MD 500s, brand new, cost less than £1 million. For sure, the Apache is vastly superior to the MD 500 (when they can get it flying), but pound for pound, which would provide more protection for our troops – one Apache (most likely sitting in the repair shop) or 60 MD 500s?

Clearly, Blackwater did their sums, as they have done with the Tucano. At a cost of less than £5 million (and an operating cost in the order of £5000 an hour) it will be doing a job that we are gearing up to use the £80 million Eurofighter (and are currently using Harriers at £37,000 an hour). Which would be better value – one Eurofighter (most likely sitting in the repair shop) or 16 Tucanos?

Yet, despite rehearsing these issues again and again, as a blog, we are still largely out on our own. Thus, with the aid of our readers, we have occasionally to remind ourselves: we are not wrong. I will say it again.

We are not wrong.