The British Troops Became A Soft Target
28 June, 2003
It could not have been more
predictable or better planned. The British were the soft underbelly
of the American occupation, the nice guys who didn't wear helmets and
patrolled on PC Plod bicycles through the souks of Basra.
No one would hurt the Brits,
with their friendly public relations machine and all that experience
from Northern Ireland which - when you come to think of it - might have
warned them of yesterday's attack. We, the British, always made a distinction
between us and them - the "them" being the Americans - but
failed to grasp that in Baghdad, the Iraqis did not recognise the difference.
All the messages from the embryo resistance - all the statements from
the ex-Baathists and the Shia clerics - talked about the "Anglo-American
invasion" or about the "American and British occupiers".
It wasn't difficult to guess
how the ambush was designed. The Americans are taking too many precautions
now; they are surrounded by their tanks and armour, protecting their
marble occupation palace, shooting down stone throwers with the abandon
of Israeli troops. So why not go for the Americans' soft-target allies?
Of course, there are the
equally predictable reactions of horror. It was a "cowardly",
"despicable" attack, which is how we described all those hundreds
of ambushes on British soldiers in Belfast and Armagh. In fact, that's
just how we described the attacks on British troops in Aden and Cyprus
and Malaya, in 1920 Ireland, in Kenya and Palestine.
Because, whether or not Tony
Blair realises it, we are playing once more the game of colonial occupiers
- and now we are paying the price.
It was just the same in 1917.
General Sir Stanley Maude proclaimed that his British invasion force
had come to "liberate" the people of Iraq - not to conquer
them - but within three years, his troops had been gunned down every
bit as cruelly as the young British soldiers yesterday.
Hundreds of them still lie
in the great North Gate military cemetery in Baghdad. By an appalling
irony of history, this first attack on the British - the greatest against
the occupation force since the invasion of Iraq last March - occurred
only a few miles from the scene of the British First World War defeat
at Kut al-Amara where an entire British Army, wasted by diseases, surrendered
to the Ottoman Turks and was death-marched north to Anatolia.
How could they do this to
us when we came to liberate them? That will become an inevitable theme
in the aftermath of this attack. Guerrilla warfare, as the British know
all too well, is a brutal form of conflict. It does not distinguish
between "good" occupiers and "bad" occupiers, between
Americans who shoot down the innocent and Tommy Atkins in his soft beret
and his knowledge - doesn't it go back to our own Bloody Sunday in 1972?
- that when you kill the innocent, you will suffer for it.
It also, of course, raises
two more questions. Weren't those British soldiers sent to Iraq to find
the weapons of mass destruction? And since there don't appear to be
any such weapons, why did they have to die yesterday?