It's no time to quit Iraq - we're winning
William Shawcross reports from Basra on how Britain is training a new Iraqi army - but warns against too early a handover
The Sunday Times, May 21, 2006
HE was an art student until he joined the new Iraqi army last November.
"When the coalition freed us I decided to join the army to help my
country," Hamed al-Bahadij, 22, said. "I love my country and I wanted to
help my people." He is now training to be an officer at the Iraqi Military
Academy at Ar-Rustimayah outside Baghdad.
First Lieutenant Yasser Ahmed Rassol is another young Iraqi army officer in
training. He was sent in a group of 40 students on a 13-week course at the
Infantry Battle School at Brecon, in Powys. His English is good. "We learnt
to fight in built-up areas," he said. He will soon graduate as a company
The academy was built by the British Army in 1924 and has now been restored
by Britain. When I visited it in 2004 it was just a building site. Now it
is the best training school in Iraq and is known among the British officers
as Sandhurst in the Sand. It has begun to produce 600 young officers a
year. Some 250 have already graduated and are out in the field commanding
The academy has already held two passing out parades. According to Colonel
Maurice Sheen, a member of the coalition training team, "parents are often
in tears at the parades. They say, 'Thank you for what you have done for my
I made a brief visit to Iraq last week with General Sir Mike Jackson, the
chief of the general staff. This was his seventh trip to Iraq since the war
and his last as CGS. He retires in July.
I came away convinced that the British contribution to Iraq is still both
vital and useful.
The terrorists are trying to frighten us and the Americans away by their
hideously brutal and often indiscriminate attacks, but they promise the
Iraqi people only bloodshed and barbarism. The coalition, on the other
hand, is helping the vast mass of the Iraqi people to build a better
The new Iraqi army is, for obvious reasons, vital to the new Iraq. As it
grows, so the American and British-led coalition can hand over more and
more of the country.
We also visited the Iraqi 10th Division headquarters outside Basra. The
transformation of the division has been extraordinary. Jackson met Major-
General Abdul al-Lateef Thuban Mohammed, its commander, whom he has talked
to regularly since 2004.
Recruits to the army and police are being targeted by the terrorists, said
Lateef, "because the terrorists know we are the armed fist that can destroy
The division's equipment is still modest but officers proudly showed off
newly delivered Polish armoured cars named Hogs. (Poland has greatly
increased its international profile as an important member of the
coalition.) Lateef sends his men out on patrol in Basra every day. When a
British helicopter was shot down on May 6, killing all five Britons aboard,
a mob of about 200 people gathered around the wreckage. That was the bad
news. The good news was that soldiers from the 10th Division were
immediately sent to drive back the crowd and secure the area.
Lateef spoke with clear pride of what he and other officers had achieved so
far. "The Iraqi army is for all Iraqis," he said.
The hope is that whereas Saddam Hussein's army was a compulsory instrument
of oppression, the new army will be seen as a symbol of national unity.
The coalition plan is to create an army of 137,000 men and a police force
of 190,000. So far the army has grown to about 115,000 and the police to
138,000. British and American officers express much more confidence in the
army. The police force is more corrupt and has probably been more
infiltrated by militia and terrorist groups.
Jonathan Dyer, a policeman from Camberley, Surrey, is on his second tour in
Basra. His first mission was, he says, "brilliant - the best seven months
I've ever had".
He is now trying to instruct the police in the rule of law - not easy
because Saddam's police were vicious and hated. But he seems confident that
progress is being made, if more slowly than with the army. "People back
home just don't see the reality," he said.
The reality is that there are two processes side by side in Iraq. The first
is the political process in which Iraqis have voted in their millions in
municipal and general elections and in a referendum to approve a new
constitution. There is a free press for the first time, competing
television stations and it seems that every house has a satellite dish -
they were banned under Saddam.
Parallel to this is the bloodiness on the streets, where terrorists -
Sunni, Shi'ite and Al-Qaeda - are determined to stop the Iraqis being given
a better chance. Every time the political process advances, the terrorists
step up their attacks to try to derail it. General Sir Rob Fry, the senior
British soldier in Baghdad, points out that the longer the formal process
is blocked, the more power leaches onto the streets.
Attacks on American and British troops are non-stop - two Britons were
slightly injured by a roadside bomb yesterday morning. They may have begun
to break our will at home, but not in the field. British and American
soldiers of all ranks share a determination to continue to help Iraq.
The terrorists target medical staff - at least 80 doctors and more than 400
nurses had been murdered by the beginning of this year. Prominent trade
unionists have been assassinated, like many other people who contribute to
a new, civilised Iraq.
However, Iraqi hospitals are still working. The terrorists are thought to
have killed about 23,000 people, mostly Iraqi civilians, but they cannot
win - unless we abandon our commitments.
This weekend a new government was very belatedly being formed. It will be
vital for this government, under Nouri Maliki, the prime minister, to drag
politics off the streets and back into the constitutional process.
He must set a clear mandate and he must implement it. People must see long
overdue improvements in water, electricity and sewerage systems, as well as
security. He must also improve all levels of governance. An early test will
be if he can get rid of the governor of Basra, Mohammed al-Waili, who is
regarded as useless.
All this will be terribly hard, not just because of terrorist disruption
but because the politicians concerned are unused to government. After 30
years of terror, Iraqis are understandably scared of making decisions.
However, if the government is seen as broadly representative of the
Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish populations and is seen to be effective, it will
be much harder for the insurgents. Even those who were opposed to the
invasion of Iraq should recognise that this is a whole new battle - between
the values of a liberal civil society and nihilism, sometimes Islamic but
The coalition training of the Iraqi armed forces is proceeding well. The
Iraqi army already has the lead in about 60% of the country. We can soon
begin to draw down our troops and turn over more power to provincial
To do so too fast, just because the war is unpopular at home, would be to
snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. As Jackson said at the end of his
trip, our success in Iraq should not be measured by numbers of troops
It is much more complex than that. The goal is an independent Iraq with a
representative government. Part of that goal is to prevent the most bloody
and reactionary gangs of killers from destroying the country - and the
future of the Middle East.