Juan Cole: The British retreat from Iraq brings peril for U.S. troops





[Juan Cole is a professor of modern Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan and the author of "Sacred Space and Holy War" (IB Tauris, 2002).]

Tony Blair's announcement that Britain would withdraw 1,600 troops from southern Iraq by May, and aim for further significant withdrawals by the end of 2007, drew praise from U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. "What I see," said Cheney, "is an affirmation of the fact that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well."

In reality, southern Iraq is a quagmire that has defeated all British efforts to impose order, and Blair was pressed by his military commanders to get out altogether -- and quickly. The departure has only been slowed, for the moment, by the pleas of Bush administration officials like Cheney. And far from the disingenuously upbeat prognosis offered by the vice president, the British withdrawal could spell severe trouble for both the Iraqi government and for U.S. troops in that country.

The British helped provide the security that allowed private supply convoys bearing fuel, food and ammunition to travel from Kuwait up through Shiite-held territory to the U.S. military's forward operating bases in and around Baghdad and in Anbar province. Col. Pat Lang, a retired senior officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency, has pointed out that if Shiite militias began attacking those trucks, American troops in the center-north of the country would become sitting ducks for the Sunni Arab guerrillas.

The other danger posed by the British withdrawal is to Iraq's economy. The southern port city of Basra is the country's primary economic window on the world. Exports of the 1.6 million barrels a day of petroleum it managed to produce in January all went out of Basra. The pipeline that used to take Iraqi exports from the northern oil city of Kirkuk to Ceyhan on Turkey's Mediterranean coast has been subject to constant sabotage. The Iraqi state depends on the revenue realized from Basra's exports for its survival. As it is, it has been charged that militias siphon off $2 billion a year in petroleum revenues through smuggling operations. Were the central government to lose control of even more of those revenues, it could be starved to death.

And the danger is imminent. Although it is often alleged that Basra is relatively calm because it lacks Sunnis, neither claim is true. Though heavily Shiite, Basra also has tens of thousands of Sunnis -- even, perhaps, the odd al-Qaida operative. Sunni spokesmen such as Qatar-based Yusuf al-Qaradawi maintain that thousands of Sunnis have been driven out of the city and that a hundred Sunni mosques have been confiscated by Shiites. The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government denies these allegations.

And Basra is certainly not calm. ...



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