BRIAN BRADY WESTMINSTER EDITOR
TONY Blair is to send hundreds more British troops to Iraq in a bid to prevent the south of the country descending into bloodletting and anarchy, Scotland on Sunday can reveal.
But the proposal to reinforce the UK force in Iraq with an extra 700 soldiers was condemned by government critics last night as taking British forces up to - and even beyond - breaking point.
Despite the warnings, military planners are desperately attempting to scrape together another 700 troops to back up the existing British force of 11,000 in and around Basra. The back-up force will travel to the country when power is handed back to the Iraqi people in three months’ time.
The move was sanctioned after British commanders in Basra warned that they would need more help if the security situation elsewhere in Iraq continued to deteriorate.
American and British commanders have agreed the entire UK force will stay in the south, rather than travel north to combat insurgents, because the continued security of the Basra area is essential to the overall prospects of maintaining peace in Iraq.
Despite the reinforcements, Blair is this week expected to tell President Bush in Washington that - with a quarter of UK forces already serving in various trouble spots around the world - he cannot commit any more troops to the struggle for order in Iraq.
Blair is also likely to urge United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan to "be more aggressive" in demanding international involvement in the transfer of power on June 30, and pave the way for UN peace-keeping troops to share the burden of policing the divided nation.
Yesterday, fierce fighting continued across Iraq between American forces and insurgents from both the Sunni and Shi’ite populations. However, in Fallujah, a temporary halt to the vicious conflict was called by the US, allowing members of the Iraqi Governing Council to hold talks with gunmen.
But with no real prospect of an end to the violence, Bush is already urging several countries, including France and Germany, to promise to send 1,500 troops dedicated to protecting UN staff in Iraq, in a bid to persuade Annan to restore the UN presence in Iraq in time for the handover.
The international force would allow the UN to oversee elections in Iraq, leading to a peaceful handover of sovereignty on June 30, but it would also relieve the burden on the US and the UK, the major partners in the coalition force currently occupying the country.
The appeal for help from other countries follows months of complaints that Washington had excluded the international community from the post-Saddam reconstruction of Iraq.
Downing Street sources conceded that Blair would appeal to Annan to back the efforts to get the international community on board during a meeting in New York on Thursday.
One source said the UN "should be more proactive" in demanding its involvement in the reconstruction programme, the humanitarian effort and, eventually, the provision of peacekeeping troops on the ground.
He added: "The objective is to make it clear that if the UN wants to have a role in Iraq it has to be more aggressive in getting involved.
"The UN has criticised what is happening in Iraq, and it has criticised the Americans in particular, but it hasn't been aggressive enough in telling the US what it [the UN] can do, and what it wants to do."
The furious diplomatic activity lying ahead of Blair was revealed as it emerged that senior staff at the army’s permanent joint planning headquarters in Northwood, Middlesex, have been ordered to thrash out plans for sending another battalion to Iraq to keep the peace during the handover period.
One Ministry of Defence insider told Scotland on Sunday that the hurried attempts to assemble a provisional force of 600-700 troops was sanctioned following concerned requests from British commanders in the field in Iraq.
The revelation comes as British politicians and military commanders have complained about "overstretch" in a 200,000-strong armed force which already has more than 50,000 military personnel stationed abroad.
Army chief General Sir Michael Walker last month warned that British forces were currently recuperating from the battle to topple Saddam, and would not be able to mount a similar operation for at least four years.
The standard two-year break between operational duties had been reduced to 10 months.
Tory defence spokesman Gerald Howarth said the reinforcements might seem "prudent", but added: "Our guys are already massively overstretched in Iraq and around the world, and they are desperately short on training.
"If we send another battalion, and more after that if this is ramped up further, how are we going to fill the gaps that are opening up elsewhere? We don’t have enough numbers as it is, and the people we do have are not getting the time to get the proper training to do the job."
An MoD spokesman confirmed that the deployment in Iraq was "constantly under review", but refused to comment on plans for an increased presence.
Good. Here's your rifle, Tony. Couple bullets. Baggy green suit (we ran out of the tan ones), some water, sorry the body armor didn't get delivered, travel docs, and don't forget to take a deep breath of all that depleted uranium dust while you are over there.
Blair: I will not flinch from historic Iraq fight
Kamal Ahmed, political editor
Sunday April 11, 2004
Tony Blair put his political reputation on the line over Iraq yesterday, saying that the Government would not flinch from its 'historic struggle' despite the efforts of 'insurgents and terrorists'.
In the Prime Minister's first public comments since the eruption of vicious fighting across Iraq which has seen 460 Iraqi civilians and 46 US troops killed, Blair said that if the coalition forces failed in Iraq 'dictators would rejoice, fanatics and terrorists would be triumphant'.
Writing exclusively for The Observer before a make-or-break summit with president George Bush this week, he gave full backing to American tactics in Iraq and said a 'significant part' of Western opinion against the war was sitting back, 'half hoping we fail'.
He said the country was not descending into civil war and dismissed those attacking coalition forces as former supporters of Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda-backed terrorist groups or followers of the radical cleric, Muqtada-al-Sadr. He also argued that much of Iraq was unaffected and that many Iraqis rejected the uprising, which has seen coalition forces lose control of a number of cities.
His strongly worded attack comes after another 24 hours of high tension in the country. Shia insurgents in Falluja said they now had taken 30 civilian hostages including Israelis, Americans and Spaniards. They threatened to behead them unless the coalition forces pulled out.
The Japanese government also made a last-ditch plea for the release of three hostages who are under threat of death today from rebel leaders if the Japanese prime minister does not pull out more than 500 military advisers engaged in reconstruction programmes.
'Our greatest threat, apart from the immediate one of terrorism, is our complacency,' Blair said. 'When [some] call on us to bring the troops home, do they seriously think that this would slake the thirst of these extremists, to say nothing of what it would do to the Iraqis? Or if we scorned our American allies and told them to go and fight on their own, that somehow we would be spared?
'One thing is for sure: they have faith in our weakness just as they have faith in their own religious fanaticism. And the weaker we are, the more they will come after us.
'There is a battle we have to fight, a struggle we have to win and it is happening now in Iraq.'
Blair's comments, which give no glimmer of a change of tack in Iraq, are in sharp contrast to those of the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who last week said that the 'lid had come off the pressure cooker' in the country and that the situation was 'the most serious' the coalition forces have faced.
Blair's intervention comes as other Western leaders also went on to the front foot. Bush, Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, and John Howard, Australia's Prime Minister, all took to the airwaves yesterday to defend coalition tactics in Iraq.
Number 10 was stung into action after criticism that no Ministers had commented on the deteriorating situation until Straw's interview on Friday. Blair wrote the article from holiday in Bermuda.
'We are locked in an historic struggle in Iraq,' Blair said. 'Were we to fail, which we will not, it is more than the "power of America" that would be defeated. The hope of freedom and religious tolerance would be snuffed out.'
Senior Number 10 sources made it clear that the 30 June deadline for a handover to an Iraqi-led interim government was 'inviolate'.
Officials said that Blair would also call on Bush to back a new United Nations resolution giving a mandate to the new Iraqi government. Although he will not push for a 'blue helmets' UN peace-keeping force, he will say that a new resolution would allow the UN to oversee moves to democratic elections and a new constitution.
This weekend the Conservatives threatened to disrupt the fragile political truce over Iraq by suggesting that the 30 June date should be reviewed in light of recent events.
'It is extraordinarily important that we don't find ourselves in a position of forcing events to try to fit the mould of a deadline rather than adopting a deadline which fits the mould of events in Iraq,' said Oliver Letwin, the shadow chancellor.
Lord Hurd, the former foreign secretary, also said a British envoy should be sent to Iraq to ensure that Britain's opinions were being heard by the Americans. But Blair said he would not be deflected from the course set out by American and British forces and that there was no need for a change in policy.
'What exactly is the nature of the battle inside Iraq itself?' the prime minister said. 'This is not a civil war though the purpose of the terrorism is undoubtedly to try and provoke one.'
He said that Iraq was now divided. 'On the one side, terrorist fanatics and remnants of a brutal dictatorship who murdered hundreds of thousands of their own people and enslaved the rest. On the other side, people of immense courage and humanity who dare to believe that basic human rights and liberty are not alien to Arab and Middle Eastern culture.'
In his weekly radio address to the nation, Bush also revealed his unwillingness to change tack. The president promised further military and financial support to Iraq after the initial handover of power and through the country's election pencilled in for the end of 2005.
'Our decisive actions will continue until these enemies of democracy are dealt with,' Bush said. '[Guerrillas] want to dictate the course of events in Iraq and to prevent the Iraqi people from having a true voice in their future. The enemies of freedom will fail. Iraqi sovereignty will arrive on June 30.'
Hoon said that life was now 'measurably better' for Iraqi people than it was a year ago despite ongoing violence. On Radio 4's Today programme, the defence secretary conceded the increased violence had been 'extremely difficult', but he insisted there had been real progress in rebuilding Iraq.
Phony Tony Bliar's Letter To The Editor:
(I thihnk it should have been longer ..)
Why we must never abandon this historic struggle in Iraq
Sunday April 11, 2004
We are locked in a historic struggle in Iraq. On its outcome hangs more than the fate of the Iraqi people. Were we to fail, which we will not, it is more than 'the power of America' that would be defeated. The hope of freedom and religious tolerance in Iraq would be snuffed out. Dictators would rejoice; fanatics and terrorists would be triumphant. Every nascent strand of moderate Arab opinion, knowing full well that the future should not belong to fundamentalist religion, would be set back in bitter disappointment.
If we succeed - if Iraq becomes a sovereign state, governed democratically by the Iraqi people; the wealth of that potentially rich country, their wealth; the oil, their oil; the police state replaced by the rule of law and respect for human rights - imagine the blow dealt to the poisonous propaganda of the extremists. Imagine the propulsion toward change it would inaugurate all over the Middle East.
In every country, including our own, the fanatics are preaching their gospel of hate, basing their doctrine on a wilful perversion of the true religion of Islam. At their fringe are groups of young men prepared to conduct terrorist attacks however and whenever they can. Thousands of victims the world over have now died, but the impact is worse than the death of innocent people.
The terrorists prey on ethnic or religious discord. From Kashmir to Chechnya, to Palestine and Israel, they foment hatred, they deter reconciliation. In Europe, they conducted the massacre in Madrid. They threaten France. They forced the cancellation of the President of Germany's visit to Djibouti. They have been foiled in Britain, but only for now.
Of course they use Iraq. It is vital to them. As each attack brings about American attempts to restore order, so they then characterise it as American brutality. As each piece of chaos menaces the very path toward peace and democracy along which most Iraqis want to travel, they use it to try to make the coalition lose heart, and bring about the retreat that is the fanatics' victory.
They know it is a historic struggle. They know their victory would do far more than defeat America or Britain. It would defeat civilisation and democracy everywhere. They know it, but do we? The truth is, faced with this struggle, on which our own fate hangs, a significant part of Western opinion is sitting back, if not half-hoping we fail, certainly replete with schadenfreude at the difficulty we find.
So what exactly is the nature of the battle inside Iraq itself? This is not a 'civil war', though the purpose of the terrorism is undoubtedly to try to provoke one. The current upsurge in violence has not spread throughout Iraq. Much of Iraq is unaffected and most Iraqis reject it. The insurgents are former Saddam sympathisers, angry that their status as 'boss' has been removed, terrorist groups linked to al-Qaeda and, most recently, followers of the Shia cleric, Muqtada-al-Sadr.
The latter is not in any shape or form representative of majority Shia opinion. He is a fundamentalist, an extremist, an advocate of violence. He is wanted in connection with the murder of the moderate and much more senior cleric, Ayatollah al Khoei last year. The prosecutor, an Iraqi judge, who issued a warrant for his arrest, is the personification of how appallingly one-sided some of the Western reporting has become. Dismissed as an American stooge, he has braved assassination attempts and extraordinary intimidation in order to follow proper judicial process and has insisted on issuing the warrant despite direct threats to his life in doing so.
There you have it. On the one side, outside terrorists, an extremist who has created his own militia, and remnants of a brutal dictatorship which murdered hundreds of thousands of its own people and enslaved the rest. On the other side, people of immense courage and humanity who dare to believe that basic human rights and liberty are not alien to Arab and Middle Eastern culture, but are their salvation.
Over the past few weeks, I have met several people from the Iraqi government, the first genuine cross-community government Iraq had seen. People like Mrs Barwari, the Minister of Public Works, who has just survived a second assassination attempt that killed her bodyguard; people like Mr Zebari, the Foreign Minister. They are intelligent, forward-looking, tolerant, dedicated to their country. They know that 'the occupation' can be used to stir up anti-coalition feeling; they, too, want their country governed by its people and no one else. But they also know that if we cut and run, their country would be at the mercy of warring groups which are united only in their distaste for democracy.
The tragedy is that outside of the violence which dominated the coverage of Iraq, there are incredible possibilities of progress. There is a huge amount of reconstruction going on; the legacy of decades of neglect is slowly being repaired.
By 1 June, electricity will be 6,000MW, 50 per cent more than prewar, but short of the 7,500MW they now need because of the massive opening up of the economy, set to grow by 60 per cent this year and 25 per cent the next.
The first private banks are being opened. A new currency is in circulation. Those in work have seen their salaries trebled or quadrupled and unemployment is falling. One million cars have been imported. Thirty per cent now have satellite TV, once banned, where they can watch al-Jazeera, the radical Arab TV station, telling them how awful the Americans are.
The internet is no longer forbidden. Shrines are no longer shut. Groups of women and lawyers meet to discuss how they can make sure the new constitution genuinely promotes equality. The universities eagerly visit Western counterparts to see how a modern, higher-education system, free to study as it pleases, would help the new Iraq.
People in the West ask: why don't they speak up, these standard-bearers of the new Iraq? Why don't the Shia clerics denounce al-Sadr more strongly? I understand why the question is asked. But the answer is simple: they are worried. They remember 1991, when the West left them to their fate. They know their own street, unused to democratic debate, rife with every rumour, and know its volatility. They read the Western papers and hear its media. And they ask, as the terrorists do: have we the stomach to see it through?
I believe we do. And the rest of the world must hope that we do. None of this is to say we do not have to learn and listen. There is an agenda that could unite the majority of the world. It would be about pursuing terrorism and rogue states on the one hand and actively remedying the causes around which they flourish on the other: the Palestinian issue; poverty and development; democracy in the Middle East; dialogue between main religions.
I have come firmly to believe the only ultimate security lies in our values. The more people are free, the more tolerant they are of others; the more prosperous, the less inclined they are to squander that prosperity on pointless feuding and war.
But our greatest threat, apart from the immediate one of terrorism, is our complacency. When some ascribe, as they do, the upsurge in Islamic extremism to Iraq, do they really forget who killed whom on 11 September 2001? When they call on us to bring the troops home, do they seriously think that this would slake the thirst of these extremists, to say nothing of what it would do to the Iraqis?
Or if we scorned our American allies and told them to go and fight on their own, that somehow we would be spared? If we withdraw from Iraq, they will tell us to withdraw from Afghanistan and, after that, to withdraw from the Middle East completely and, after that, who knows? But one thing is for sure: they have faith in our weakness just as they have faith in their own religious fanaticism. And the weaker we are, the more they will come after us.
It is not easy to persuade people of all this; to say that terrorism and unstable states with WMD are just two sides of the same coin; to tell people what they don't want to hear; that, in a world in which we in the West enjoy all the pleasures, profound and trivial, of modern existence, we are in grave danger.
There is a battle we have to fight, a struggle we have to win and it is happening now in Iraq.