Friday 27 April 2007

A lost battle?

Long gone are the days when the routine fare of this blog was a diet of edited agency reports and rehashed newspaper stories. We have tried to set our own agenda with our own particular "take" on the world and, where we do deal with current news stories, we try to add value, through offering either more comprehensive coverage or analysis – or both.

The process of writing in this matter, with the discipline of running a daily blog, ends up being an enormously educative experience and, if our readers benefit from our work, we as authors possibly benefit even more. On a whole raft of issues we can count ourselves better informed, arising purely from the process of having to research and write for the blog.

That said, the accumulation of knowledge and information (if these two things are different) does not make the process of writing any easier. If anything, as we follow some issues, more of the underlying complexities become apparent and matters which, initially, looked black and while, assume degrees of ambiguity which make analysis and understanding more difficult as time goes on.

Such is the situation in Basra and the continued presence of British troops, holding the line against what seem – to some at least – overwhelming odds in a futile attempt to bring peace and stability to that corner of a benighted country.

That would certainly be the impression if one was to take at face value the report in The Independent today, which retails the thoughts and experiences of a serving British soldier recently returned from Iraq who, according to the newspaper, "exposes horror of war in 'crazy' Basra".

This is 27-year-old Private Paul Barton of 1st Battalion, the Staffordshire Regiment, who paints a picture of troops under siege, "sitting ducks" to an increasingly sophisticated insurgency. "Basra is lost, they (the militias) are in control now. It's a full-scale riot and the Government are just trying to save face," he says.

What immediately suggests caution, however, are two things. The first is, rather uncompromisingly, that if you were to seek a strategic overview of the situation in Basra, it would be unwise to rely on the testimony of a single soldier, much less a 27-year-old Private. Then, secondly, the account is carried by a newspaper which is totally opposed to our presence in Iraq and is pushing an avowedly withdrawalist agenda.

This notwithstanding, some of the unvarnished details offered by Barton are disturbing. He recounts how, during his recent tour in Iraq, his regiment lost one soldier, Pte Johnathon Wysoczan, 21, but 33 more were injured. "I was the first one to get to one of the tents after it was hit, where one of my mates was in bed," he says. "The top of his head and his hand was blown off. He is now brain damaged."

He then adds: "We were losing people and didn't have enough to replace them. You hear about the fatalities but not the injuries. We have had four who got shot in the arm, a bloke got blown up twice by roadside bombs and shot in the neck and survived." Most, he said, endured at least one "lucky escape" during their tour. "I had a grenade chucked at me by practically a five-year-old kid. I had a mortar land a couple of metres from me."

The regiment was based in the Shatt al-Arab hotel base, which was handed over to the Iraqi army on 8 April. Of the 40 tents in the base, just five remained unscathed by the end of the tour, he said. "We were just sitting ducks ... On the last tour we were not mortared very often. This tour, it was two to three times a day. Fifteen mortars and three rockets were fired at us in the first hour we were there."

He added: "Towards the end of January to March, it was like a siege mentality. We were getting mortared every hour of the day. We were constantly being fired at. We basically didn't sleep for six months. You couldn't rest. Psychologically, it wore you down. Every patrol we went on we were either shot at or blown up by roadside bombs. It was crazy."

To conclude his account, Barton then offers his view that the insurgents appeared to be considerably better trained, funded and equipped than had been the case during their first tour of duty. "Last tour, I never fired my rifle once. This time, I fired 127 rounds on five different occasions. And, in my role [providing medical support], I shouldn't have to fire." He added: "We have overstayed our welcome now. We should speed up the withdrawal. It's a lost battle. We should pull out and call it quits."

What we are to make of this is anyone's guess. One could take with a pinch of salt the Private's view that the battle is lost and that we should pull out, but what does come over clear – and seems reliable – is his account of the "siege mentality". As we have remarked so many times on this blog (for instance here), base protection seems woefully inadequate and has been putting our troops seriously at risk – with the inevitable consequences on morale.

However, Private Barton's former base at Shatt al Arab Hotel has now been handed over to the Iraqis and, while Basra Palace is also taking a hammering, that too will be gone by June. That will leave Basra Air Station, and base protection measures there may be substantially better than have been provided elsewhere.

Whether troops based so far out of town, with limited (and therefore vulnerable) access roads to trouble spots, will perform any useful function remains to be seen but, harrowing though Barton's experience was, it is no longer strictly relevant to the strategic picture. But what exactly that picture is, we could not even begin to say. And that is also disturbing.