The British Army has been defeated in Iraq and left with no option but to retreat from the country, claims radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Violent resistance and a rising death toll among UK troops has forced a withdrawal, he said in an interview with The Independent.
“The British have given-up and they know they will be leaving Iraq soon,” Mr Sadr said. “They are retreating because of the resistance they have faced. Without that, they would have stayed for much longer, there is no doubt.”
The young nationalist cleric heads Iraq’s largest Arab grassroots political movement, and its powerful military wing, the Mehdi army. It has clashed frequently with British forces in southern Iraq, most recently in the battle for power over the oil-rich port city of Basra. Scores of British soldiers have been killed and wounded by Sadrist militants.
“The British have realised this is not a war they should be fighting or one they can win,” Mr Sadr said. “The Mehdi army has played an important role in that.” He also warned that Britain’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq had made the UK a less safe place to live. “The British put their soldiers in a dangerous position by sending them here but they also put the people in their own country in danger,” he said. “They have made enemies among all Muslims and they now face attacks at home because of their war. That was their mistake.” His comments came during two separate meetings with The Independent at the Sadr movement’s headquarters in Kufa, a holy Shia city, 100 miles south of Baghdad, and site of the Grand Mosque where Mr Sadr often preaches fiery Friday sermons. The streets were eerily devoid of cars, which are, in effect, banned in an effort to prevent bombings. Senior Shia leaders are high on the list of targets for Sunni extremists.
Only two guards with AK-47 assault rifles appeared to be protecting Mr Sadr in his office, a clear sign that Kufa and the surrounding area is firmly under the control of Sadr loyalists. It is not patrolled by US troops and access is policed by Iraqi security at heavily armed roadblocks.
Mr Sadr’s remarks echo those of senior British military commanders who have come to view the mission of UK forces in Iraq as finished. They have reportedly told the Prime Minister Gordon Brown there is nothing more to be achieved in southern Iraq and that troops should be redeployed to Afghanistan.
At the beginning of the year, Britain had just over 7,000 troops in two provinces of southeastern Iraq. Current force strength is down to 5,500, confined to two main bases, Basra airport and the Basra Palace, which is under siege. Another reduction to 5,000 is expected this summer. Any additional cuts would be part of a complete withdrawal. Defence secretary Des Browne said last week that further reductions had not been decided upon and would only take place in agreement with the Americans.
As the force has dwindled, losses among British troops have accelerated. So far this year, 41 servicemen and women have died, compared to 29 in the whole of 2006. Their area of operations has, in effect, been taken over by three competing militia groups, the Mehdi army, SCIRI and Fadhila, all of which are heavily implicated in oil smuggling, intimidation and death squad activity.
But Basra would be a safer place once the British military presence had ended, Mr Sadr insisted. “There will still be some problems in southern Iraq, there will be violence because some countries are trying to influence the situation,” he said in apparent reference to Iran. “But with the occupation of southern Iraq finished we will be freer to live our lives as brothers.”
Throughout last week a series of influential Iraqi sheikhs, including at least one senior Sunni tribal leader, visited the Sadrist headquarters as part of an effort to heal the rift between Sunnis and Shias. Aides to Mr Sadr said it was a priority to form a united nationalist front against all “foreign elements” in Iraq, with the Americans and al-Qa’ida to be considered equally as enemies.
Mr Sadr praised Iraqi Sunnis who had begun to fight against al-Qa’ida and religious extremists guilty of targeting Shia civilians. “Proud Iraqis in Ramadi have stood against al-Qa’ida and against the Americans and they have written their names into our history books,” he said.
Shrugging off recent rumours that he had fled to Iran – he dismissed them as American propaganda designed to discredit him – Mr Sadr denied US claims his forces were armed by Iran.
“We are at war and America is our enemy so we are entitled to take help from anyone,” he said. “But we have not asked for Iran’s help.” The cleric also said he “welcomed” a recent decision by the UN to expand its role in Iraq. “I would support the UN here in Iraq if it comes and replaces the American and British occupiers,” he said.
“If the UN comes here to truly help the Iraqi people, they will receive our help in their work. I would ask my followers to support the UN as long as it is here to help us rebuild our country. They must not just be another face of the American occupation.”
The Sadr movement pulled its 32 elected MPs out of Iraq’s parliament earlier this year, ending its nominal support for Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
Other factions have since followed suit, bringing the government to the brink of collapse. Despite recent efforts by the Prime Minister to shore up his power base, his days as Iraq’s elected leader were numbered, Mr Sadr said.
“Al-Maliki’s government will not survive because he has proven that he will not work with important elements of the Iraqi people,” the cleric said.
“The Prime Minister is a tool for the Americans and people see that clearly. It will probably be the Americans who decide to change him when they realise he has failed. We don’t have a democracy here, we have a foreign occupation.”