The road to Basra

How did Basra go from being a potential 'showcase' for coalition war aims to a thorn in the coalition's side?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Today, fighting in the southern Iraqi city of Basra has apparently intensified again. Following a stand-off between British troops and Iraqi resistance forces over the weekend, British military officials declared Basra a legitimate ‘military target’.

According to breaking news reports, British forces now seem to be gearing up to intervene in the city, or firing in support of what they believe is a civilian uprising.

What has happened in Basra? Before the war started, military officials talked about Basra as a pushover – an Iraqi city with a largely Shi’ite population who had been shafted by Saddam more than once, and who would welcome the coalition forces with ‘open arms’ (1).

Military men planned for a ‘rapid and benign’ takeover, an ‘easy occupation’ (2). They drew up plans for ‘bussing journalists into the city, and flying in TV correspondents to record any scenes of jubilation’ (3). According to one report, the aim of the Basra operation was to create ‘an immediate positive image of American and British war aims’ (4).

Five days into the war, Basra looked like a bodge-up. Far from being ‘rapid and benign’, the battle for Basra has, in the words of one reporter, been ‘slow and painful’. ‘Pockets of resistance’ are said to be holding back the coalition forces. Having failed to win an ‘easy occupation’, US forces abandoned Basra and moved on to Baghdad, leaving British units to decide what to do in the south.

On 24 March 2003, British forces retreated from Basra, after apparently coming under ‘sustained mortar fire’. ‘This is all getting very messy’, said a senior British officer yesterday, as British units continued to surround the city, trying to decide whether or not to go in, whether or not to attack.(5)

How did Basra go from being a hoped-for ‘easy occupation’ to ‘very messy’ in the space of five days? All the reports from the embedded journalists on the ground flag up the ‘stiffer than expected’ resistance, the ‘fierce pockets of resistance’, the ‘surprising local resistance’, which apparently threw the coalition forces into disarray, held them back from taking the city and thwarted their military campaign.

No doubt there are some anti-coalition forces holding out in the south, and they may well be fierce. But that doesn’t explain the five-day wrangling over Basra, the stand-off outside the city, and military officials’ uncertainty over how to proceed. Rather, the drawn-out Basra operation reveals deeper problems within the coalition itself.

Basra shows up the deep divide between the risk-averse military strategy planned in Washington and London and the reality on the ground in Iraq. Pre-war, there was a strong whiff of wishful thinking in the coalition’s plans for Basra. Military officials openly hoped that the city would fall with ‘minimum risk’ to coalition forces and with ‘little need’ to engage enemy forces or risk civilian casualties. Officials explained, excitedly, that ‘the Iraqi military command has ordered all of its front-line divisions to pull back to defend Baghdad, leaving poorly trained and equipped garrison units to protect Basra’ (6).

In the belief that taking Basra would be easy, military officials started to discuss the city not so much as a strategic or military target, but as a ‘showcase’ for American values and war aims. According to one report, ‘Coalition commanders had hoped that Basra would be a relatively easy prize… They had talked of the possibility of a negotiated surrender, and apparently believed that the city would then become a showcase for the liberation of Iraq’ (7). Some seemed to believe that Basra could be won by a propaganda war alone.

Even when military strategists discussed the potential problems that might arise in Basra, they seemed to be motivated less by specific, local concerns than by broader fears. For US officials, ‘one signal’ that Basra might not fall so easily was the alleged arrival of Ali Hassan al-Majid (otherwise known as ‘Chemical Ali’) in the region a couple of weeks before the war started – raising fears that Saddam’s henchmen planned to unleash chemical warfare in Basra, to wipe out both coalition troops and Basra Shi’ites. It is telling that even potential hitches were seen as coming from outside Basra, threatening to ruin the coalition’s ‘showcasing’ of the city.

Having discussed Basra as a walkover, a showcase, military commanders then seemed shocked by (and, it would appear, slightly unprepared for) the resistance that emerged. It remains unclear just how much anti-coalition resistance there is in Basra, and how powerful it is – but just the fact of resistance can appear shocking and disorienting to forces that planned to roll in, negotiate a surrender, and beam happy snaps of liberation around the world. One reason why Basra is now seen as a big problem with no obvious solution is that the plans for the city emphasised ease over engagement.

Even after the war started, the wishful thinking in relation to Basra seemed to run away with itself. On 23 March 2003, as it became clear that Basra wouldn’t be a pushover, General Tommy Franks was still talking up a possibly non-militaristic invasion of Basra. ‘Our intent is not to move through and create military confrontations in that city’, he said. ‘Rather, we expect that we’ll work with Basra and the citizens in Basra [who will welcome] the forces when they come in’ (8).

More than once in the past week we have been told that Basra has already fallen and that troops are ‘well on course’ to see through their military plans. On 22 March 2003, BBC News reported that US and British marines had ‘secured Iraq’s second-largest city, Basra’. ‘US predictions that many here would choose to surrender rather than fight appear to have come true’, said the BBC (9). On one US political discussion website, someone posted on 23 March 2003: ‘Yes, we have taken Basra! Onward to Baghdad.’

As well as making the current pockets of resistance seem terrifying (perhaps in disproportion to their actual strength), the ‘easy occupation’ strategy for Basra appears to have left coalition forces somewhat unprepared for the current difficulties. Military officials admit that they ‘vastly underestimated’ the potential problems in Basra. One British official said: ‘We were expecting a lot of hands up from Iraqi soldiers…. But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. We always had the idea that everyone in this area hated Saddam. Clearly there are a number who don’t.’ (10)

Some US military analysts (one or two from inside the Pentagon itself) have been questioning America’s military strategy. According to one, ‘The ground war that is occurring was not going to happen in [Donald] Rumsfeld’s plan’, and the US military was ‘unprepared’. Of course, such statements have to be taken with a pinch of salt, coming, as they do, from hawkish traditionalists peeved that they didn’t get the all-out war they wanted. But there does seem to be clash between the military strategy that emphasised minimum risk and the military reality that has proved unpredictable.

So having planned for ‘easy occupation’, coalition troops have been facing dreaded resistance in Basra – but how big is the resistance? Even here, there seems to be much uncertainty. And judging from some of the statements emanating from the coalition camp, it sometimes seems that the resistance problem itself is possibly being blown out of proportion.

There are constant contradictory claims about who is doing the resisting in Basra, how many they number, and how much of a logistical threat they pose to the coalition forces. When US and UK forces first approached Basra on 21 March 2003, they apparently faced a ‘small number’ of Iraqi conscripts who were determined to fight on even though most of the army had left Basra and been summoned back to Baghdad. One report put the number of resisting troops in Basra at ‘around 40 or 50’.

But three days later, on 25 March 2003, after coalition forces had spent the weekend struggling to secure Basra, one report claimed that up to ‘1000 Iraq fighters’ could be sheltering in the city, ‘some in civilian buildings’. One report claimed that there are ‘more than scattered gunmen firing their last bullets’. Another reported that among British commanders, ‘there are fears that a strong Iraqi armoured division could be ready to push from inside Basra to try to retake the airport’ (11).

On 25 March 2003, British Group Captain Al Lockwood claimed that ‘we are only dealing with a very small number of opposition’, which is apparently mostly made up of ‘non-regular militia’. One report said that British forces faced ‘lightly armed irregulars’. Yet on the same day, a report in The Times (London) claimed that ‘British officers now believe that there may be a large number of T55 [Iraqi] tanks in Basra’, with which enemy forces planned to storm the coalition forces.

From tens of irregular militia (or determined Iraqi conscripts) hiding in Basra buildings to a thousand Iraqi fighters planning to storm the coalition camp in tanks – in the space of a weekend? Such fluctuating and fearful predictions seem to reveal something about the mindset of those military commanders gathered around Basra rather than shedding light on what’s going on inside Basra itself.

There have also been unclear claims of who the resisters are. Some reports say they are Saddam’s Republican Guard sent down to protect Basra, others that they are ordinary Iraqi conscripts with ‘nothing to lose’. Some claim they are ‘irregular militia’, while some argue that they are ‘small groups of zealots whose motivations are unknown’ (12). And one report even raises the dreaded prospect that there may be ‘al-Qaeda sympathisers hiding among the local population….’ (13).

In a piece headlined ‘Armed Iraqis stalking troops in south’, Reuters reported on 24 March 2003 that ‘Roaming bands of Iraqi soldiers are preying on invasion troops in southern Iraq while the bulk of the US-led forces pushes north towards Baghdad’ (14). Irregular zealots with unknown missions and possibly tanks, hiding out with al-Qaeda sympathisers and dressing up as civilians while stalking British and American troops across the deserts of the south….in the ‘fog of war’ it can be hard to separate fact from fiction – and fact from fear.

One reason that coalition forces don’t know who is inside Basra and what they are planning to do is that they themselves have not ventured into the city. Instead, they have stayed on the outskirts, desperately keen to avoid urban combat and civilian casualties and ‘bloody skirmishes’. In this, the Basra debacle also captures the defensiveness of the Iraqi campaign.

Having retreated from Basra on 24 March 2003, following a fire fight with Iraqi gunmen and the loss of a British soldier, at the time of writing British forces are surrounding Basra and trying to work out what to do next. The British have declared Basra a legitimate ‘military target’ – though they have even attempted to justify this shift in humanitarian terms. Officials claim that Basra is a target that may have to be stormed, in order to allow humanitarian aid to get to the beleaguered and hungry civilians.

At 8.13am on 25 March 2003, Reuters reported that a ‘British military spokesman confirmed British troops were probably going to go into Basra to battle irregular fighters resisting invasion forces’. At 9.16am on the same day, Reuters reported that a British spokesman said British troops ‘would not enter the southern city of Basra to battle irregular Iraqi fighters’. As the UK Guardian pointed out, ‘an hour is a long time in the military calendar’ (15).

According to one British official, the British military surrounding Basra have two main considerations – they want to avoid both urban combat and taking civilian casualties. On 25 March 2003, one report stated: ‘It was not clear if British forces would move into Basra itself to deal with the militia fighters. They have said they wanted to avoid urban combat for as long as possible.’ Some British officials hold out hope that the Iraqis inside Basra (whoever they are) will surrender. ‘Ideally, we want the mayor of Basra to come out, have a cup of tea, and agree to hand over the city peacefully’, says one defence official (16).

But surely the coalition’s dithering strategy in and around Basra could have buoyed up the Iraqi resistance inside Basra. Reports claim that the Basra resisters are hiding among civilians and trying to tempt coalition forces into the city to fight a bloody street war. If this is so, then it would seem that they have been exploiting the coalition’s fear of such forms of fighting. If anything, the sight of mighty American and British forces standing about on the outskirts of Basra over the weekend and appearing uncertain of what to do next could have boosted the resisters’ belief that they could hold off an invasion.

After retreating from Basra to ‘take stock of the situation’ on 24 March 2003, the British were apparently planning a new, risk-averse strategy, which they look set to launch sometime soon. According to Group Captain Al Lockwood: ‘When we have a clear plan that will minimise risks to civilian infrastructure, the civilians themselves and of course our own troops, then we’ll execute it.’ But wasn’t it a minimum-risk strategy that landed the invading forces in this apparent mess in the first place?

Finally, the Basra stand-off shows that caution and killing can go hand in hand. For all their talk of avoiding civilian casualties, the coalition forces’ risk-averse strategy in Basra appears to have caused bloodshed among the civilians there. According to the Washington Post, on 22 March 2003, when it became clear that there were pockets of resistance in Basra, the US military sent in helicopters, which ‘relentlessly bombarded Iraq’s second-largest city from two directions, making at least a dozen forays during a 30-minute period. The missile strikes were interspersed with long blasts of heavy machine gun fire from the whirring attack aircraft’ (17).

Other reports claim that the British and US armies have fired cluster bombs into Basra. Iraqi officials claim that 77 civilians have been killed in Basra; al-Jazeera TV puts the number of deaths at ‘around 50’. Of course it’s difficult to find out the truth of these claims – especially as the early American plans to bus and fly in journalists to Basra and beam pictures around the world have been abandoned. But when helicopters fire ‘relentlessly’ and when cluster bombs are lobbed into a city about which coalition forces appear to know little (like whether there are tanks in there), it seems pretty certain that civilians will be injured or killed.

In the space of a week, Basra has gone from being a potential ‘showcase’ for Western liberation to a thorn in the coalition’s side. This shift appears to have come about as a result of the coalition’s own uncertainty – an uncertainty that the people of Basra are paying dearly for.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Taking Basra key to strategy, Patrick E Tyler, LA Daily News, 18 March 2003

(2) Taking Basra key to strategy, Patrick E Tyler, LA Daily News, 18 March 2003

(3) Taking Basra key to strategy, Patrick E Tyler, LA Daily News, 18 March 2003

(4) Taking Basra key to strategy, Patrick E Tyler, LA Daily News, 18 March 2003

(5) The road to Basra, Jack Fairweather, Daily Telegraph, 25 March 2003

(6) Taking Basra key to strategy, Patrick E Tyler, LA Daily News, 18 March 2003

(7) Desert rats retreat under fire from Basra, Ian Cobain and Philip Webster, The Times (London), 25 March 2003

(8) Fight looks tougher in Basra, Umm Qasr, Todd Richissin, The Sun (Maryland), 23 March 2003

(9) Applause as marines enter Basra, David Willis, BBC News, 22 March 2003

(10) Guerilla warfare blocks Basra fall, Pakistan News, 25 March 2003

(11) Desert rats withdraw from Basra, Simon Houston, Western Mail, 25 March 2003

(12) Basra diehards keep allies at bay, Patrick Bishop, Daily Telegraph, 24 March 2003

(13) Basra diehards keep allies at bay, Patrick Bishop, Daily Telegraph, 24 March 2003

(14) Armed Iraqis stalking troops in south, Reuters, 24 March 2003

(15) War watch, UK, Guardian, 25 March 2003

(16) Pockets of resistance frustrate advance of coalition, Michael Evans, The Times (London), 24 March 2003

(17) Move on Basra Met by Strong Iraqi Resistance, Keith B Richburg, Washington Post, 23 March 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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