Tuesday, February 20, 2007


As Bush's Iraq surge struggles to do more than add even more chaos to an already highly unstable situation, Blair is about to make an announcement on British troop withdrawals.

The timing is all about the situation on the ground in Iraq; it has absolutely nothing to do with Blair's date of departure. After four years of occupation, it is a coincidence that these two events just happened to, well, coincide. In fact, Basra, Maysan, Muthanna and Dhi Qar, the provinces administered by the British in the south of Iraq, are all jolly peaceful places. Any cynical journalist who doubts this can go see for themselves...

Well, no, they can't. Not easily anyway. One of the ways to understand a little of what the situation is really like in Iraq is to look up the Foreign Office's travel advice. It's one of the few places where the government simply cannot spin.
We strongly advise against all travel to Baghdad and the surrounding area, the provinces of Basra, Maysan, Al Anbar, Salah Ad Din, Diyala, Wasit, Babil, Ninawa and At- Tamim (At -Tamim is often referred to as "Kirkuk Province").

We advise against all but essential travel to the provinces of Al Qadisiyah, Muthanna, Najaf, Karbala, and Dhi Qar. [my emphasis]
So if you want to go and see whether the benefits of the war now outweigh the enormous costs, particularly in human lives, the government advises against it. Even the supposedly peaceful provinces are too dangerous. And as British troops withdraw from these provinces, Western journalists are going to find it increasingly difficult to gain access to these areas. The fog of war, already heavy, will become almost impenetrable.

Perhaps that's why Blair still feels he can spin this as a success.

As General Dannatt famously noted, British troops have been serving no useful purpose down in the south for some considerable time. Any moves to bring them home are long overdue. But as Baghdad continues to unravel and with the government increasingly divided along sectarian lines and fragile in the extreme, any pretence that the operation in Iraq has been a success is clearly risible. Blair's almost certainly about to give it a go all the same.

One further point. That we now know of the existence of a detailed U.S. plan of attack against Iran is not of itself particularly informative; the U.S. military has all sorts of plans for all sorts of everything. That "diplomatic sources" in the U.S. have passed information from that plan to BBC journalists, however, is significant; they don't do that with all of their plans.

There is still the possibility that this is all part of a well constructed bluff, that Bush does understand that attacking Iran is not a credible option. While this would mean that the protests of those opposed to any military action are giving credibility to the bluff and effectively becoming useful idiots for Bush, it's still a comforting possibility. Perhaps he's just bluffing.

Considering everything we know about the man and his still influential vice-Dick, this comforting possibility doesn't appear to be built on anything.

And if Bush makes a move on Iran while there are still a few thousand British troops in the south of Iraq, that could turn really ugly. It'll be bad news for everyone but it could be really bad news for them.

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