Was the battle of Basra our worst defeat since Suez?

Revealed: the secret and ignominious surrender to a brutal militia that lay behind the British Army's retreat after the loss of nearly 170 lives in Iraq

Jack Fairweather, published: 16 October 2011

The Sunday Times As serialised in the Sunday Times

Basra's postal service was still not running, so the invitations would have to be hand-delivered. Ahmed, the consulate's office manager, was dispatched with 200 stiff white cards. The florid lettering on each read: "You are kindly invited to attend the Queen's birthday party at Basra Palace. Date April 21, 2006."

Consular staff had compiled an impressive guestlist to celebrate the royal birthday: southern Iraq's most notable sheikhs, imams, security officials and politicians. Iraqis working in the consulate whispered that some were known to have organised attacks against the British Army.

James Tansley, the consul general, anxiously texted tribal chiefs, encouraging them to attend. Pulling off the Queen's birthday party was one of the annual rigours of life in the field for diplomats, but this year's required special dedication. Three years after the invasion of Iraq, Britain's empire in the south — an area bigger than Ireland — was teetering.

London had shifted its strategic interest from Iraq to Afghanistan and was relying on Basra's newly elected council to take control of the city so the British Army could begin to withdraw and concentrate on the new Afghan battleground. But popular resentment at the UK's failure to improve the quality of life in southern Iraq was feeding a growing insurgency. UK bases were hit with nightly mortar and rocket attacks; and the suspected militia sympathisers, dodgy businessmen and clerics on the council were testing the promise of a smooth transition to democratic rule. If the insurgents could not be overcome, the British would face a "perfect storm", caught in two theatres at the same time, as one top general warned. How was it going to extricate itself?

Basra Palace, the British centre of operations, consisted of a dozen villas in a compound cooled by breezes from the Shatt al-Arab river. On the balmy afternoon of the party, sheikhs in gold-trimmed cloaks were greeted by Tansley and a crowd of besuited diplomats and contractors clutching wine glasses. Islam forbids alcohol, but such a vital British custom could be discreetly observed without offending anyone. Muzahim al-Tamimi, a garrulous sheikh who had ingratiated himself with the British, brought his own Johnnie Walker, saying that surely the whole point was to offend the unsophisticated "turbans", whose piety did not represent the moderate majority.

The party was in full swing when the sun dipped below a fringe of palm trees, and the mood suddenly changed. By some accounts, phones began to ring and groups of Iraqis hastily departed. Shortly afterwards, the first Katyusha rocket salvo slammed into scrubland just outside the compound walls. The remaining guests broke for cover while Tamimi remained at the buffet, sipping his whisky and joking: "I wish every party could end like this."

The Mahdi Army had infiltrated half of Basra's British-trained police force The next day the first diplomats began packing their bags to leave. The partial evacuation of the palace had begun, and with it the beginning of the end of the British occupation of southern Iraq.  


I say, Basra, do you mind awfully if we Brits attack?

British troops quit the Iraqi city in ignominy; a bid to seize it back was beset by rashness and political intrigue

Jack Fairweather, published: 23 October 2011

Colonel Richard Iron was a fastidious and scholarly soldier who had served as a mentor with the Kenyan and Omani armies earlier in his career. When he arrived in southern Iraq at the end of 2007 he was struck by the air of defeat at British headquarters at Basra airport.

British troops had withdrawn to the airport from the city after a ceasefire deal with the leader of the local Mahdi Army, or Jaish al-Mahdi, a Shi'ite militia. The deal had forced the military to make one compromise after another. Iron quickly realised it had failed: the militia was not only in control of Basra's streets but was once again attacking British forces.

Iron concluded that the British military, which had been responsible for security in southern Iraq since the invasion in 2003, needed to jettison plans for an imminent withdrawal from the country and instead support Iraqi forces in a full-scale offensive against the Mahdi Army.

When the US had faced defeat in Baghdad in 2006, General David Petraeus had spent a year soul-searching and rebuilding the military's mindset, starting with its counterinsurgency doctrine. Iron knew that history was filled with examples of the British military overcoming an insurgency, but he feared it now lacked the guts or the brains to do the same in Basra.

As mentor to the local Iraqi army commander, General Mohan al-Faraji, Iron was outside the usual British chain of command and had direct access to the Iraqi and American headquarters in Baghdad. The British Army would not listen to him, but, having for so long paid lip service to the idea that the Iraqis were in charge of security, they were duty-bound to listen to them. Using Mohan, he could take on the Mahdi Army and expose the sham that the ceasefire deal had become.

Iron was confident his plan would succeed where almost five years of British efforts had failed, because it would be the first offensive to be led by the Iraqis. If there was one lesson he had learnt from working in Oman and Kenya and from his reading of the British experience fighting alongside indigenous forces during the colonial era, it was that the Iraqis needed to take ownership.

It wasn't a hard sell. Mohan quickly bought into the plan, nicknaming it the Charge of the Knights. In Baghdad, Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, was reportedly eager to be briefed.

Iron next set about bringing British commanders on board. In early February 2008 he arranged for Daniel Marston, a Sandhurst counterinsurgency instructor, to brief Julian Free, the commander of the British brigade at the airport. Marston did not hold back in the brigadier's crowded operations room. "Unless you start treating this like an insurgency, the British Army will fail in Basra," he said.

The talk ruffled a few feathers, just as Iron had intended. To make their case, Iron called in Mohan the next day. The Iraqi general gave a bravura performance, and Free was finally won over. However, Free knew that the British military headquarters in Northwood, northwest London, was unlikely to accept the plan because it might mean staying longer when forces were desperately needed in Afghanistan.

To Iron it was clear that success hinged on America buying in. With the help of Marston, who was well regarded by the Americans, Iron arranged for Mohan to brief Petraeus.  

The American general perched on his chair before a dozen of his commanders in a green zone conference room in Baghdad for Mohan's presentation. It was rambling and incoherent, but everyone got the point. A senior Iraqi commander was offering to solve an Iraqi problem. Petraeus told the room: "This is a brave and courageous plan and let's look into how we can resource it." Iron had been sitting poker-faced through the meeting. Inside he exalted.


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