As the battle between Iraqi security forces and Iranian-backed Shia militias raged in the port of Basra over the past week, British troops remained largely on the sidelines. Some 30,000 Iraqi soldiers were sent into the city by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to retake control from the Mahdi army led by Iranian-based firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, but struggled to gain a foothold and defeat the heavily armed militias. Al-Sadr has since declared a temporary ceasefire, and has ordered his men off the streets, but there is no prospect they will lay down their arms, and the militias remain in control of large swathes of Basra. There have been reports of some Iraqi forces either deserting or defecting to the Mahdi side. The fighting has spread to other towns in the south, including Nasariyah and Hilla, as well as to Baghdad, with over 250 people killed across Iraq and several hundred injured.
President Bush described the Iraqi offensive as “a defining moment in the history of a free Iraq.” U.S. forces were involved in a series of raids against al-Sadr’s followers in the capital, and American jets took part in air strikes in support of Iraqi forces in Basra. In contrast, Great Britain, with 4,100 troops stationed at an airbase on the outskirts of the city, chose to stay out of the conflict, with the exception of logistical support and limited artillery shelling of Mahdi Army mortar positions. There are however indications of a rift emerging over tactics among British diplomats and military chiefs.
As the battle for Basra progresses, it will be increasingly difficult for Britain to stay out of the fighting, and with the possibility of a defeat for the Iraqi army, London will be faced with a difficult choice: to accelerate Britain’s departure from southern Iraq, or stand and fight. It is the latter option that is the right strategic choice for Britain to make. Since pulling out of Basra last September, Britain has sent a half-hearted and weak message to terrorist groups operating in the south. That stance must change, and British forces must be given the freedom to actively engage and defeat the enemy.
Downing Street should reverse earlier plans to withdraw 2,500 British troops from Iraq in the spring, and instead reinforce troop strength around Basra with the addition of at least 2,000 soldiers drawn from bases in Germany (where 15,000 troops are stationed), which would increase Britain’s deployment in Iraq to over 6,000. The U.K. should follow the example of the successful U.S. surge campaign, launched over a year ago with the phased introduction of an additional 30,000 American soldiers in central Iraq. It demonstrated that the West is capable today of fighting and winning a protracted counterinsurgency war against well-armed and highly trained militia groups thousands of miles away in the Middle East.
The three British battle groups based outside of the city –1st Battalion Scots Guards, with Challenger 2 tanks and Warrior armored vehicles; 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment; and 1st Battalion the Mercian Regiment — should be deployed inside Basra itself to inflict a decisive blow against the Mahdi Army. The Royal Air Force, with its 18 units in Iraq, should also play an active role in bombing raids against insurgents in and around Basra, alongside their U.S. counterparts.
It is an unfortunate reality that after years of under-funding, and with another major war to fight in Afghanistan (where 8,000 British troops are based), Britain’s armed forces are seriously overstretched, under-resourced and undermanned. Britain spends less on its armed forces than at any time since the 1930s. Incredibly, the U.K. even has a defense secretary, Des Browne, who acts on a part-time basis (his other job is Secretary of State for Scotland). It will take years of increased defense spending to stop the rot and address this state of affairs. However, the immediate battle in Iraq is too important for Britain to walk away from, and resources must be urgently reallocated to the war there.
As the power that liberated the south from the brutal fist of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist rule, the U.K. has a responsibility to see the mission through, and help ensure that Iraq’s second biggest city (with 2.6 million people), does not descend into a state of barbarism and anarchy, ruled over by vicious gangs for whom the rule of law is an alien concept. The future freedom of millions of Iraqis in the south may ultimately be dependent upon the willingness of Britain to intervene against armed thugs who are terrorizing Basra, smuggling arms and oil, extorting money from businesses, and imposing mob rule.
There are also important strategic reasons for a robust and aggressive British presence. There is a vital need to maintain security along the Iraq-Iran border, as well as to protect the supply routes that run from Kuwait to Baghdad. Iran, the world’s biggest sponsor of international terrorism, would be a huge geostrategic beneficiary of a British pullout from the south, where it already wields great political influence.
The regime in Tehran remains a major threat to long-term peace and stability in Iraq, and Iran continues to arm many of the groups responsible for the killing of Coalition and Iraqi forces. According to General Petraeus, the Quds Force, a branch of the Revolutionary Guards, was responsible for training, funding, and arming the insurgents behind the recent mortar and rocket attack on the Green Zone. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s theocratic dictatorship represents the biggest nation-state threat to international security of this generation. It is a brutal and highly dangerous tyranny that already has British and American blood on its hands and is actively waging war against Allied forces.
On a geopolitical level, the war in Iraq is an important symbol of the strength of the Anglo-American special relationship. The liberation of Iraq was overwhelmingly the work of the United States and Great Britain, and a premature withdrawal of British forces would not only place a significant extra burden on U.S. forces on Iraq, but it would also strain relations between London and Washington.
Britain, like the United States, is a warrior nation that prides itself on winning wars and standing its ground in the face of adversity. There is a real danger of this hard-earned reputation being shattered by a refusal to intervene in Basra. It would be interpreted as a retreat and a humiliation by not only Iran, but also al-Qaeda, which views Britain as its biggest enemy alongside the United States. It would weaken not only the ties that bind the U.S. and U.K., but also Britain’s standing as a world power, a factor that must weigh heavily on any decision taken by the British government.
The conflict in Iraq is part of a much larger war the free world is waging against al-Qaeda and a range of state-sponsored international terrorist groups backed by rogue regimes such as Iran and Syria. The battles on the streets of Iraq have a direct relevance to the national security of Great Britain, the United States, and their allies, and to walk away from this frontline of the war against Islamist terrorism would significantly increase the terror threat to the West. Both Afghanistan and Iraq are major battlefields of this conflict, and it is vital that Britain maintain a commitment to fighting on both fronts. It is time for Prime Minister Gordon Brown to demonstrate some Churchillian grit and act more like a lion than a lamb.
– Nile Gardiner is the director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation.