Meanwhile back in Occupied Basra...
As yet another British soldier dies in Basra, Southern Iraq, it was with some surprise that I read the following article in an establishment journal by a rather senior British politician not only defending the occupation but at the same time quite openly and candidly discussing the real reasons why the British are there.
He described the fact that the British Government has continued its Iraq policy 'in spite of the unpopularity, abuse, and misrepresentation to which they have been subjected' was 'remarkable'. There had been a 'formidable' 'campaign of prejudice directed against that policy'. However, he warned that in undertaking its policy, 'the Government have, therefore, had to bear a very heavy burden'. Indeed, he himself rather 'grudged the millions lavished on our undertakings' in the region, and rather honestly, if in slightly old-fashioned language, admitted that, in the long run, it might well be that 'fumbling with Mesopotamia and reaching out for Persia was indeed the climax of Imperial unwisdom.'
Nevertheless, the fact of the matter was that we are where we are. We need 'to settle the practical question of what it is right and best to do now. Let us begin by making up our minds what we want and what we do not want. We do not want to break our word or fail in our engagements to persons weaker than ourselves. We do not want to exhibit our country in the position of having undertaken before the whole world a task of solemnity and importance, and then failing miserably in its discharge. We do not want to spend our money there. We want to quit the country as quickly as we possibly can without breaking our pledges or leaving it prey to the wildest anarchy.'
Yet he rejected the idea that this meant immediate troop withdrawal, even though the expense of maintaining British troops in Iraq was 'enormous' and 'the conditions unhealthy'. Firstly, the situation in British occupied Basra was not too bad. As he put it, 'the Army of Occupation has been reduced from 490 battalians to a little more than four battalians....a native Government of responsible ministers directs all the Departments of State and the native Legislative Assembly is shortly to be called'. Moreover, 'an Arab Army has been created, and is improving each year with efficiency. The demand for evacuation in the British newspapers, and the speeches in Parliament to that end, so far from awakening hope in the breast of thse who were in rebellion against us, have created a lively anxiety throughout Mesopotamia lest the British should really throw down their Mandate and abandon the country.'
Secondly, holding onto Basra was important for geo-political reasons. 'In the Basra province we find the port which gives access to, and control of, the whole trade of the country, whatever it may turn to in the future. There we have a friendly population strongly in favour of association with Britain. We are close to the sea and run no risk of being entangled or cut off, and from here we can protect the great Ahwaz Oil Fields which are of such enormous and almost vital, importance to the British Navy.'
Therefore, even though 'it would take more troops and cost more money simply to hold the Basra Province with Iraq in anarchy' this was what was currently needed. 'No responsible person has suggested the abandonment of Basra, and in consequence leaving the Anglo-Persian Oil Fields unprotected, and if these essentials are to be defended we should surely adopt the cheapest and easiest way'.
Following the latest death in Iraq, Defence Secretary Des Browne paid tribute to the work of British troops. He said the 'sad death of a British soldier in Basra' would not 'deflect our support to the elected government in Iraq. In both Iraq and Afghanistan our troops are doing a tough job magnificently well. Their courage and commitment demands nothing but admiration.' I suspect the author of the article discussed would agree 100% with this statement as well. After all, we can't leave the great oil fields of Iraq unprotected can we?
I suppose I ought to reveal the name of the senior politician who wrote the candid article, for those who haven't already guessed. No, it wasn't Tony Blair. In fact, the article was written in July 1923 and entitled 'Mesopotamia and the New Government', and was published in The Empire Review, vol. XXXVIII, no. 270. Its author was one Winston S Churchill.
For more info on the history of the British in Iraq, perhaps see here.
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