Published: 24 September 2005
"Water is your friend" was the advice regularly given to a truly good friend of mine here in the Middle East. The speaker was a member of the One-Thousand- Litres-a-Day-Keeps-Dehydration-at-Bay Brigade, although I have to say that the Arabs take a different view. After generations of sword-like desert heat, they take tea in the morning, endure an oven-like day without sustenance, and then sip another scalding tea at dusk. The less you drink, the less you perspire, the less you need to drink. In a land with few oases, it's a craft worth learning.
The problem is that today, water is not our "friend". It comes smashing into New Orleans; it drowns the nursing home elderly in their baths; it assaults Galveston and Houston; it kills millions in Bangladesh, dozens in Andhya Pradesh; it floods south from the great ice-cold green bays of the Arctic; it carries 19th-century houses through the centre of Prague, and it bubbles into the bars of English pubs from the ancient, overflowing river-banks of Kent. Water has become our enemy.
There is a beautiful, delicate, inevitably cruel irony at the way in which nature and man conspire to uncover the lies of the rich and powerful. Just as President Bush's disastrous environmental policies are now destroying the southern coast of the United States - yes, it is global warming that causes this massacre of the innocent - America is preparing to receive its 2,000th dead soldier back from Iraq. No bodies, please - let's not dishonour the dead of New Orleans by taking photographs of them. Nor the American dead of Iraq by taking pictures of their coffins en route home. Death, as usual, is what happens to other people.
But the photographs of British soldiers, cowled in fire, hurling themselves from the top of their Warrior fighting vehicle in Basra this week, were the final iconic images of our uniquely British folly in Iraq. Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara's henchmen have concocted another monstrous lie about all this, of course. The Iraqi policemen who protested at Britain's destruction of their prison - and the crowds who set fire to the Warrior (and its crew) -- were only a few hundred people. Who were we to suggest they represented the millions of Shia Muslim voters who solemnly went to the polls last January? Ho, ho, ho. Yes, and who were we to suggest that the "few hundred" Saddam "remnants" identified as troublemakers in mid-2003 represented a Sunni insurgency? And who were we, back in 1971, to suggest that a few hundred stone-throwers in the Falls Road and Short Strand in Belfast represented "the vast majority of ordinary peace-loving Catholics" in Northern Ireland?
I speculated some weeks ago as to when the bubble will burst. With the insurgent capture (and massacre) of a US base in Iraq? With the overrunning of the Green Zone in Baghdad? Every day now brings Vietnam-style evidence of our collapse. The Americans batter their way into Tal Afar and kill, so they say, "142 insurgents". Get that? US forces manage to kill 142 of their enemies, not a single innocent man, woman or child among them!
But let's go back to the Brits. Remember how we were told that our immense experience of "peace-keeping" in Northern Ireland had allowed us to get on better with the Iraqis in the south than our American cousins further north? I don't actually remember us doing much "peacekeeping" in Belfast after about 1969 - the rest, I recall, was about biffing the IRA - but in any case the myth was burned out on the uniforms of British troops this week.
Indeed, much of the war in Northern Ireland appeared to revolve around the use of covert killings and SAS undercover operatives who blew away IRA men in ambushes. Which does raise the question, doesn't it, as to just what our two SAS lads were doing cruising around Basra in Arab dress with itsy-bitsy moustaches and guns? Why did no one ask? How many SAS men are in southern Iraq? Why are they there? What are their duties? What weapons do they carry? Whoops! No one asked.
What we were actually doing to "keep the peace" in Basra was to turn a Nelsonian "blind eye" on the abuse, murder and anarchy of Basra since 2003 (including, it turns out, quite a bit of abuse by our very own squaddies). When Christian alcohol sellers were murdered, we remained silent. When ex-Baathists were slaughtered in the streets - including women and their children, a civil war if ever there was one - our British officers somehow forgot to tell the press. Anything to keep our boys out of harm's way.
But this is what has been happening in Basra. As the locally recruited police force (paid by the occupation authorities) sucked into its ranks the riff-raff of every local militia - as it did in Sunni areas to the north - we ignored this. Even when an American reporter investigating this extraordinary phenomenon was murdered - almost certainly by these same policemen - the British remained silent. We were "controlling" the streets. In Amara - by awful coincidence, the very same Kut al-Amara with whose name, I'm sure, my favourite prime minister will soon be ennobled - British soldiers now operate just one heavily armed convoy patrol a day. That is the extent of our "control" over Amara. Now we are reducing our patrols in Basra. You bet we are.
And a familiar bleat is rising from the sheep pen. "Outside powers" are interfering in southern Iraq. Thirty-five years ago, it was the Irish Republic that was assisting Britain's IRA enemies. Now it is Iran that is supposedly urging the Shia of Basra to revolt. In other words, it's not our fault - yet again, it's the bloody foreigners what's to blame.
Alas, it is not. Iraqis do not need Iranian weapons or military expertise. Their country is afloat with weapons and they learned how to make bombs - in their millions - during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Half the Iraqi cabinet are linked to Iran - have the British forgotten that their honourable Dawa party government officials in Baghdad worked for the very same Dawa party that blew up the US and French embassies in Kuwait, and tried to kill the emir in the late 1980s? That these same gentlemen belong to a party which was effectively controlling the western hostages in Beirut during this same period?
No. All this is forgotten. Blame Iran. Later, no doubt, we'll blame those ungrateful Iraqis and then we'll declare victory and do what Defence Secretary John Reid claims we won't do: cut and run. And there again, we're in danger of forgetting the origin of such things. Faced with the imminent destruction of his vessel, a sailing ship captain would cut his anchor or sail ropes to allow his ship to move away from rocks or from being overwhelmed by the waves. Cutting and running was often an eminently sensible thing to do. But not for John Reid. We're not going to cut and run. We're going to be blown on to the rocks.