Sunday, 8 April 2007

Pawns in a losing game: Britain's policy in tatters

The Independent

If anything symbolised the degree to which Tony Blair's adventurous foreign policy has embroiled Britain in dangerous, unpredictable conflicts and wholly unintended consequences, it was the juxtaposition of joy and horror last Thursday.

The television news channels ran endless footage of 15 sailors and Royal Marines, freed by Iran after a two-week hostage saga that had taken almost daily twists and turns. But scrolling across the bottom of the screens was the news that four other service personnel, two of them women, and an Iraqi interpreter had been killed by an explosion in southern Iraq, the worst British loss of life in a single incident there for several months. A fifth soldier remains in a critical condition.

With two other soldiers having been killed, and another badly hurt, by small arms attacks in Basra, it meant Britain had lost six troops in Iraq during a single week for the first time since June 2003. It brought the number killed in Iraq to 140, with 109 having died in combat. This was a shock to the public at home, whose attention had been diverted by the hostage crisis from the forces stationed in southern Iraq to those patrolling the Gulf. No soldier had been killed in Basra for nearly a month, and the Government had announced that 1,600 troops would shortly be withdrawn; the pullout will begin this month, leaving the remaining contingent at about 5,500.

Any day now, British troops will hand over the Shatt al-Arab hotel, one of their last forward operating bases in central Basra, to their Iraqi counterparts. Urban patrols of the kind that make our soldiers vulnerable are expected to dwindle, with the emphasis switching to protecting the main base at Basra airport, which is outside the city.

But last week's deaths, and the fact that one of the women killed was a close friend of Prince William - Second Lieutenant Joanna Yorke Dyer was at Sandhurst with him - emphasised that Iraq remains unfinished business. Not only that: it leaves Britain entangled with Iran in a relationship far more complicated and sinister than the wranglings over the sailors and Marines seized in the Gulf. In time the latter episode will come to be seen as a minor part of a much wider struggle.

Forced to react to both events at the same time, the Prime Minister spoke of the welcome return of the captured servicemen and one woman, "safe and unharmed", before turning to the "sober and ugly reality" of Iraq. It was far too early to say that any elements of the Iranian regime had been involved in the Basra attack, but "the general picture ... is that there are elements at least of the Iranian regime that are backing, financing, arming, supporting terrorism in Iraq".

This is an accusation that has been made regularly in the past four years, but in the absence of specific proof, such claims tend to fade away after an initial flurry. Basra 's police chief said the device that destroyed a Warrior armoured vehicle, killing most of its occupants, had not been seen in the area before, and was a shaped charge of the kind the US has accused Iran of supplying to insurgents further north. British military sources did not confirm his claim, however.

What Mr Blair was at pains not to say in his reaction, but many would have been thinking, was that neither the hostage drama nor the bombing in Basra would have happened if he had not taken the decision to invade Iraq in partnership with President George Bush in 2003. For television viewers, what linked the two events was the glee of Iraqis and Iranians at having British forces at their mercy.

In Basra, local people smilingly held up trophies, including an army helmet, after the explosion. In Tehran, it was the sight of Faye Turney and her 14 male colleagues having to thank the hardline Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for graciously agreeing to forgive their transgressions and let them go. Both spectacles would have heightened doubts about why we are still in Iraq - doubts that will not have been allayed by the familiar assurances of an outgoing Prime Minister that going there was "the right thing to do".

For all Mr Blair's insistence that Britain had not negotiated or been humiliated, the outcome of the naval crisis will add to the impression that the Iraq adventure has weakened not merely his position, but that of the country. That is uncomfortable when so many other issues need to be resolved with Iran, not least the world's fears that it is seeking to make nuclear weapons, despite its angry claims to be exercising its right to develop civil nuclear power.

Yesterday the Iranian ambassador to Britain, Rasoul Movahedian, called for a goodwill gesture following the release of the 15 captives. "We played our part and we showed our good will," he told the Financial Times. "Now it is up to the British government to proceed in a positive way."

In Tehran, meanwhile, a top Iranian official has said Britain apologised for entering Iranian waters in a secret letter that was a condition for the captives' release. "They didn't make a threat to us," said Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister who now advises Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, on foreign policy. "They said sorry, we won't trespass again." Mr Ahmadinejad said at his press conference on Wednesday that "the British government sent a letter to our Foreign Ministry, and said that this will not be repeated".

The Foreign Office flatly contradicted Mr Velayati, who also claimed Britain sent a delegation to negotiate in Tehran. He was seeking to defend the Iranian government from hardliners' anger at the release of the sailors, and went on to suggest the crisis arose in response to Iranian fears about a Western military build-up in the Gulf.

For all the British denials, the remarks look certain to fuel speculation about a back-room deal. Both sides have said the release - which Mr Ahmadinejad called a product of "Islamic compassion" - was unconditional. But Tuesday's release of an Iranian diplomat, kidnapped in Iraq in February, was seen by many Iranians as a precursor to the sudden announcement that the Britons would be freed.

The propaganda war has scarcely let up since. Iranian channels broadcast Friday's press conference by the freed captives, now in uniform rather than their Iranian-issue suits, in which they spoke of being blindfolded, kept in isolation and led to believe that their execution was imminent. Ms Turney, who was not present, was said to have been told that all her colleagues had gone home, and that she was the only one still being held. But viewers in Iran saw a banner that warned that the freed personnel had been coerced into their statements by the Ministry of Defence.

The latest shot in this war was the appearance yesterday of the freed Iranian diplomat, Jalal Sharafi, who said he had been tortured by the CIA during his detention. He was questioned about Iran's relations with Iraq, and assistance to various Iraqi groups. "Once they heard my response that Iran merely has official relations with the Iraqi government and officials, they intensified tortures, and tortured me through different methods days and nights," he said.

Whatever the truth or otherwise of his claim, it underlines that this was never simply a bilateral spat: there were four parties to the dispute, with the US and Iraq in the other two corners. They, rather than Britain, were in a position to give Iran rewards for letting the service personnel go. Along with Mr Sharafi's sudden reappearance, five Iranians seized in Arbil in northern Iraq - diplomats, according to Tehran; special forces operatives, according to Washington - were allowed the consular access Iran had vainly been demanding.

Britain insists its only written communication during the crisis with Iran, sent last Saturday, restated that the incident happened in Iraqi waters, refused to admit responsibility for the crisis and did not offer an apology. However, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett did express "regret" that it happened, and the tone of the note is understood to have been conciliatory.

The softer message coming from the Foreign Office contrasted with the tough language used earlier by Mr Blair, and gave Iran room to back down. Iranian insiders say that it was Mr Blair's decision to take the matter up with the UN Security Council that prompted a harder Iranian line in the first week of the crisis. A conversation on Tuesday night between Iran's top security official, Ali Larijani, and Mr Blair's senior foreign policy adviser, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, then laid the ground for the surprise release of the prisoners on Wednesday.

But the Iranians kept the British guessing until the last minute. Mr Larijani told Sir Nigel that people should watch Mr Ahmadinejad's intervention until the very end. Only after the President had spent more than 40 minutes denouncing Britain's historic interference in Iran, and had awarded medals to the Revolutionary Guard officers who captured the sailors and Marines, did he suddenly announce that they were to be freed.

Aware that Mr Ahmadinejad's gracious pardoning of the 15 was a propaganda coup beamed live around the world, and a humiliation for British diplomacy, officials went on the offensive, explaining that the release had been a vindication of Britain's "dual track" strategy: dialogue plus consolidating international and regional support.

Some positive developments have emerged from the two-week crisis, it is said, not least a continued improvement in relations between the UK and Syria, whose offer to mediate was taken up by Britain. There is also some hope that Britain can exploit its new channel with Iran to help with Iraq. The Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshair Zebari, was "very active" in passing messages to the Iranians, said a senior government source, who denied any link between the hostage release and the positive developments inside Iraq with the "Arbil five" Iranians.

But now that the hostages are home, there will be concerns in Whitehall that Iran will seek to press its propaganda advantage on the nuclear issue, with an announcement expected at a nuclear facility tomorrow. One senior source said ruefully: "They caught us on the hop when they seized our guys, and now they have caught us on the hop the way they have been freed."

But according to some hardliners in Iran, it is their country that has been made to look weak. They interpreted Mr Blair's comments on Tuesday, talking about a "critical 48 hours", as an ultimatum. When the Britons were released, in their view, it seemed that Tehran had backed down. They had wanted to see the sailors and Marines tried and a public apology forced from Britain.

"The release of the sailors gave the message to the West that in negotiations with Iran they need to respect its dignity," said Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a former newspaper editor who is close to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's powerful former president. "Iranians say the map of their country looks like a cat - and this cat needs to be petted and stroked rather than cornered. Because that makes it scratch and fight."

In an occupation of Iraq that veered off course almost as soon as Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled in Baghdad, the greatest unintended consequence of all has been the trump card it has handed to Tehran. Having alienated Iraq's Sunni minority and given power to a majority Shia community which will always see Iran as its natural ally, Britain and the US have no choice but to seek Iranian co-operation if they are to extricate themselves without ignominy. For Mr Blair, that means restraining Mr Bush as much as seeking to restrain Iran.

Far more is at stake here than Britain's dwindling force in southern Iraq, or jousting between British inflatables and Iranian speedboats in the Gulf. The American-led "surge" in Baghdad, which is aimed at curbing violence at least to a level that might make an exit strategy possible, depends on some degree of Iranian acquiescence.

America's most hostile Shia opponent, the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, might or might not have gone to Iran to escape the security crackdown, but the political wing of his movement has spoken in favour of giving the "surge" a chance to succeed. If Tehran had shown open hostility, it would also have been difficult for the US to secure the co-operation of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, for Sunni-friendly measures such as reinstating former Iraqi army officers and paying pensions to sacked Baathist officials.

The days are long gone when Washington's triumphant neo-conservatives, having seen the Iraqi regime fold within weeks, talked openly of conquering Iran next. But Tehran still complains that it has Western forces to both its west and east, in Iraq and Afghanistan, while two US carrier groups are in the Gulf to keep alive President Bush's implicit military threat on the nuclear issue. Britain and the US are both accused of supporting separatist groups who have carried out bombings and kidnappings on Iranian soil.

Dealing with the Tehran regime and its passive-aggressive approach to the rest of the world has never been easy. But Britain, which is about to dispatch Prince Harry into the dangerous environment of southern Iraq, where Iran has unquestioned influence, is compelled to grit its teeth and do its best. Explaining this to a public which is already bemused about the reasons for Britain's continued presence in Iraq is another matter.

Victims of war: The dead

Rifleman Aaron Lincoln

Age 18. Died as a result of injuries sustained during a security patrol in Basra on Monday.

Rifleman Lincoln, 2nd Battalion, the Rifles, was shot when a gunman opened fire on part of the patrol. He was evacuated to the field hospital at Basra air station, where he died from his injuries. The Newcastle United fan from Durham had joined the Army, following in his grandfather's footsteps, last July and was deployed to Iraq in January 2007.

Kingsman Danny John Wilson

Age 28. Died as a result of injuries sustained during a patrol of Basra City last Sunday. The Cumbrian father of one began his second tour of duty in Iraq with the 2nd Battalion, the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, in March. His wife, Tracey, received an anniversary card from her husband days after he was killed. She said: "Saturday was our sixth wedding anniversary. He phoned me five times that day because he was thinking about me being on my own."

Kingsman Adam James Smith

Age 19. Died alongside colleagues in the Warrior armoured vehicle hit by a roadside bomb on Thursday. Kingsman Smith, who grew up in Liverpool, joined the Army in 2004 and was deployed to Iraq last November with the 2nd Battalion, the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment. Kingsman Smith's family said: "Adam, our hero, our star. He had everything to live for. We keep thinking, hoping, it's not real and at any moment we will wake up from this nightmare."

Corporal Kris O'Neill

Aged 26. Died on Thursday in Basra when the Warrior armoured vehicle he was travelling in was hit by a roadside bomb. Cpl O'Neill, of the Royal Army Medical Corps, was the father of twins and husband to Tina. He had worked hard to recover from a knee injury in order to be deployed in January to Iraq, where he taught first aid to Iraqi police. The medic's squadron commander, Major Phil Carter, said: "I could always depend on Cpl O'Neill."

Private Eleanor Dlugosz

Age 19. Died providing medical support to a Warrior patrol on Thursday. From Southampton, she was on her second tour of duty in Iraq with the Royal Army Medical Corps, returning in March after completing her Class 1 Medics Course in the UK. Her colleague and friend Private Stella Lee said: "She brightened up everybody's day with her cheesy smile. She was a privilege to work with and know. She will always be in our hearts." Her troop commander, 2nd Lt Vinny Ramshaw, described her as "a strong and morally courageous woman".

Second Lieutenant Joanna Yorke Dyer

Age 24. Died alongside Corporal Kris O'Neill, Private Eleanor Dlugosz and Kingsman Adam James Smith when their Warrior armoured vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb during a patrol in Basra on Thursday. Second Lieutenant Yorke Dyer trained alongside Prince William at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. A spokesperson for Clarence House said: "Jo was a close friend of his and he is very much thinking of her family and friends right now and they will remain in his thoughts and prayers." Second Lieutenant Yorke Dyer was attached in December 2006 to the 2nd Battalion, the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, in order to gain operational experience in Iraq. A keen hockey player, Second Lieutenant Yorke Dyer was born in Berlin and went on officer training at Sandhurst after completing a degree in politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University.



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