Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A little bit of history repeating?

When the British Army first moved into Basra, they were held up as an example, particularly to their American counterparts, of how to manage a tricky urban warfare scenario. They had, it was widely agreed, learned much from decades of in many ways similar challenges during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and were now putting that to good effect in southern Iraq. Some of the events of the last week or so, however, have made the reference to Northern Ireland seem, if still relevant, altogether less hopeful.

Firstly, it must be borne in mind that the British did indeed enjoy relatively good relations with the citizens of Basra during the war and its immediate aftermath; and some of this was no doubt down to techniques learned in the six counties. However, it must also be noted that the simple demographics of the situation favoured them greatly in comparison with US forces: the largely Shia areas of the south certainly had no love for Saddam Hussein, and were far more likely to welcome the invading forces as liberators rather than occupiers. However, as time has gone on, these relations have become increasingly strained, with both parties arresting and detaining officials (policemen or soldiers) of the other. These events culminated recently in the storming of an Iraqi prison by UK forces to free two of their group arrested by Iraqi authorities, and the arrest of Iraqi policemen by UK forces on charges of terrorism (accompanied by the startlingly open accusation that Iran was responsible for arming them). There can be no doubt: the people of Basra, on the whole, want the UK out of their country.

Anybody in the British Army mulling over the reference to what they learned during their time in Northern Ireland must have been struck by a sense of déjà vu. After all, UK forces were first called into the province to protect the Catholic minority from the Protestant majority, and a police force so biased in favour of the latter that it could not be trusted to fulfill that role. And they were welcomed by the Catholic community; at first. It didn't take long, however, for these relations to sour either (for a whole myriad of complex reasons, among which, undoubtedly, as in Basra, must be counted the cynical propaganda of those seeking to ferment violence for their own aims); soon, the UK forces were viewed as an occupying force by those who had welcomed them as liberators.

If, however, we can say of the British army that they have learned from this experience - at least in terms of urban guerilla technique, if not of the inevitable unpopularity of occupying forces - it seems, sadly, that the same cannot be said for the Government. Tony Blair plans to introduce to the Commons tomorrow a bill to grant a new raft of powers to the police, amongst which the most controversial will be the plan to allow detention without trial for up to three months.

OK, Guantanamo it ain't. Nonetheless, the British government tried something very similar before, during the Troubles: internment. The policy of arresting and detaining Irish Catholics without trial is widely viewed now as one of the most disastrously counter-productive moves made by the Brits in the whole conflict, yielding very few results in terms of intelligence or arrests, and providing hugely fertile grounds for recruitment of new members to the Republican cause - and to acts of terrorism. Certainly, there are some differences with the new proposed legislation; Blair, for example, has made much of the fact that such detentions will be brought before the judiciary for weekly confirmation. This, however, has not been enough to silence the critics; whose membership includes several prominent members of the judiciary themselves.

Already, commentators and opposition politicians in the UK have begun to link the two, arguing that there is nothing to suggest that history will not repeat itself this time around. Labour MPs have warned that it could "split the Party". Blair, however, seems determined, on this issue as on so many others, to live from hand to mouth...

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