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26 July 2004

Blair’s survival baffles the soldiers

By Stephen Grey

I watched a DVD of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (a rather poor-quality pirate copy) in a tent in southern Iraq with the British army. It’s all the rage among the troops. “You’ve got to come and see this,” they said.

You may think of soldiers as gung-ho types who strained at the leash last year to invade Iraq. Not so. Above all, like millions back home, many are baffled by one political fact. As a senior officer put it: “How, in God’s name, can a prime minister survive after leading a country to war based on false intelligence?” Or as another said: “Getting rid of Saddam was a good thing, but that was never how Blair justified sending us here. Surely, there is no more serious political crime?”

About 0.001 per cent of British army efforts since last year have been devoted to finding weapons of mass destruction, these officers reveal. Few ever expected to find them. Indeed,

a restricted US military manual, dated September 2002, and now

on sale in a Baghdad book market, shows even the Pentagon was hardly convinced. At worst, it said, it was “possible” that Iraq retained “a small offensive chemical warfare capability”.

What frustrates soldiers in Basra is that anti-Blair feeling at home leads to negative reports about their current mission. Major General Andrew Stewart, the departing British commander, told me: “The anti-war sentiment often seems to lead the media to want to just come here and pick faults in what’s being done.” A junior officer said: “Like it or lump it, we’re in Iraq now and we’re proud to be doing our best to do something positive while we’re here.” Though Iraqis still don’t feel safe to drive out of town, the British have trained new Iraqi security forces and launched the reconstruction, while preventing the kind of insurgency that has plagued the north.

The soldiers also complain about the British government. Its fears over accident liability, they say, have prevented the reopening of Basra International Airport. They are also annoyed with the Foreign Office for advising all Britons to stay out of Iraq. “We’re here trying to get the NGOs and companies in to get cracking on reconstruction,” said one, “and London is telling them it’s all too dangerous.”

To cap it all, the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, failed to impress when he flew to Basra in June to hear a briefing about some intense fighting involving 300 attacks on British troops in al-Amarah, north of Basra. He promptly fell asleep.

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