Basra – the lull before the storm? by Edward Leigh MP

portrait-edwardleigh4.jpgI was somewhat surprised by the answer given me by the Defence Secretary last Monday when I asked him about conditions in Basra:

‘Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Last week, I asked the Prime Minister about the security situation in Basra and he told the House that violence there was down by 90 per cent. Today, a member of the public from York wrote to me to say:

“He, the Prime Minister, chose not to mention that this – the decline in violence – is due entirely to the oppressive methods used by the police force. They impose extreme forms of Islam on the people. Women are unable to venture out in public unless their dress conforms to the extreme Islamic rules”

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is not going to read out a full letter on a supplementary question. He is lucky that I called him.

Des Browne: Let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that the 90 per cent. figure used by the Prime Minister has been used regularly in the House. It relates to the reduction in violence and it is due substantially to the fact that about 80 per cent. of violence in Basra was directed at our troops when they were based there.

I have no way of knowing the provenance of the information that the hon. Gentleman presented to the House. He is perfectly entitled to put his constituent’s observations to us, but unless we know the factual basis of that constituent’s opinion, we have no way of evaluating it. I asked for and was provided with about 45 minutes of candid footage of the centre of Basra a couple of weeks ago. I saw obvious evidence of women moving around in the town’s markets and they were not dressed as the hon. Gentleman described. I was struck by that because of the assertions that many people had made. It seemed to be a bustling city in many respects. There is violence and I understand that, but Generals Mohan and Jalil-and the army and the police force generally-are improving their ability to deal with it. There is still some way to go-no one ever represents the position differently-but from my own observation of candid footage of the centre of the city, it is not capable of being described as the hon. Gentleman put it.’

(HANSARD EXTRACT ENDS)

The Defence Secretary did not give the source of this ‘candid footage’, but presumably it was military or intelligence-derived.

It is certainly hard to obtain reliable information from Basra at the moment. Des Browne’s admission that he had no way of knowing the provenance of the information contained in that letter supports my contention that there is something of a news drought going on. After all, if the army is keeping off the streets to avoid futile casualties, no wonder there are fewer reporters around.

Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Centre (Report, 10 January), while noting a general improvement in the security situation across much of Iraq, said recently: ‘Basra, while currently calm in the wake of the British withdrawal, is likely to see more factional fighting as the various Shia groups struggle for control of the oil-rich province.’

So this could be the lull before the eventual storm, or bloodbath.

Perhaps not all is doom and gloom. Recent reports from Arab agencies state that there have been some arrests of people at a militia training camp this month as well as a car-bomb attempt foiled by the police, but the situation is murky. Although our army’s Operation Sinbad last year was held to have successfully purged the Basra police of militia and other corrupt elements, there is clearly a danger of re-infiltration taking place.

All successful gangsters seek to infiltrate the police. Al Capone did it in Chicago; the Kray Twins did it in London.

A Guardian report on December 17 quoted Major General Jalil Khalaf, the new police commander in Basra City, saying “They left me militia, they left me gangsters, and they left me all the troubles in the world”.

He also said that in the last three months, 45 women had been killed for being “immoral”-i.e., they were not fully covered or may have had illegitimate children.

Crucially, he added that Shia militia are better armed than his force and control the main port.

There is little evidence of significant improvement since General Khalaf’s comment. 

In the end we don’t really know what’s going on.

But consider the sheer number of deaths across Iraq since the invasion. Admittedly, anything like an exact figure is impossible to come by, but according to a recent report by the WHO, as many as 223,000 civilians may have died since the US-led invasion in 2003. Even their lowest estimate, 104,000 is a horrifying figure.

They suggest a best guess of 150,000. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/7180055.stm

The war itself was both immoral and illegal. Effectively ceding control to the Shia militias compounds this.

The Government, of course, doesn’t dare to talk about this openly. The Opposition would like to say more, but are hemmed in by their own support for the war at the time.

As Michael Howard (Tory leader at the time) said, he would have voted differently if he had known of the flaws in the intelligence being touted by the Government.

As many readers will know, I was one of the few Tory MPs who voted against the war.

How depressing it can be sometimes to be proven right.

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