Feature

Is it time to get out?

The week's news at a glance.

British troops in Iraq

Iraq has become a roiling pit of “violence and anarchy,” said Max Hastings in the London Daily Mail. We are now not only fighting the insurgents, but we’re also battling Iraqi police. Last week, Britons were reeling in shock and humiliation after seeing television images of our soldiers storming a police station to free two imprisoned British soldiers. During the raid, British soldiers fired on Iraqi soldiers—our supposed allies—and Iraqi mobs firebombed our tanks. British soldiers, their faces disfigured by petrol burns, told of the complete breakdown of trust and respect. “A devastating new blow has been struck at the image and reputation of the British Army.”

The back story to this debacle is particularly damning, said Boris Johnson in the London Times. Two undercover British soldiers were arrested because they refused to show their IDs to Iraqi police. Their action was understandable because “they knew that the Iraqi police force in Basra is now completely riddled with extremist Shia elements, and they were in fear of their lives.” Just a few months ago, Basra’s police chief was fired for admitting that three-quarters of his officers belonged to militant Shiite factions, and that many had even taken part in attacks on coalition forces. When the Baghdad government ordered that the soldiers be released, the Basra police refused. That’s why our troops had to storm the station. See what this means? Despite 30 months of British training, the Basra police are corrupt and disloyal.

So why are we there? asked the London Daily Mirror in an editorial. Iraq is getting more violent and more dangerous, not less. British-patrolled Basra was supposed to be the poster child for effective peacekeeping—a peaceful, cooperative region so unlike the U.S.–patrolled zones of violence. When Basra turns against the coalition, there is no point in staying. And even Col. Tim Collins, the British commander who delivered such an inspirational call to battle at the start of the Iraq war, has publicly called for a phased withdrawal. It’s now obvious what we must do: “Get the troops out.”

It won’t be too long now, said Ewen MacAskill in the London Guardian. British diplomats “are working frantically in private” to come up with an exit strategy. The goal is to have most British troops home by the end of next year. Nobody expects that Iraq will be stable by then. It just needs to have enough of the trappings of democracy so that, in the words of one diplomat, “George Bush is not seen to have failed.” From here out, it’s not about saving Iraqis, but saving face.

We can’t pull out alone, said the London Spectator in an editorial. “The grim fact” is that British troops went in with the Americans, and we have an obligation to stay as long as they do. We have obligations, too, to the Iraqis, whose nation we helped break. “As long as the Iraqi government believes we can do any good by staying around to help clear it up, we are morally obliged to do so.”

Johann Hari

Independent

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