UK Seeks Control of Southern Iraq

Prime Minister Tony Blair took pains this week to play down any suggestion he was at odds with the Bush administration over the powers to be granted to the interim Iraqi government after the United States hands over sovereignty on June 30.

Promoting a draft UN resolution on Iraq, Blair said that while the US and British forces in that country would have a free hand to act under the orders of their commanders, they would nonetheless consult with the new Iraqi administration before embarking on large-scale operations like the US siege of Fallujah or offensives against Shite insurgents in Najaf or Karbala.

What he seemed to saying was that Iraq’s provisional government would have a veto over some US and British military activities.

US secretary of state Colin Powell was not pleased.

Asked if the new government had the power to veto a U.S. operation, Powell told a news conference he held jointly with Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel: “Obviously, we would take into account whatever they might say at a political and military level.” He added: “Ultimately, however, if it comes down to the United States armed forces protecting themselves or in some way accomplishing their mission in a way that might not be in total consonance with what the Iraqi interim government might want to do at a particular moment in time, U.S. forces remain under U.S. command and will do what is necessary to protect themselves,” Powell said.

Powell was careful not to mention the British army – unlike Blair who did refer to US forces in what was seen in Washington as an attempt to dictate policy.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Washington, Blair’s remarks have sparked sharp differences between Washington and London. The White House believes Blair is sending a signal to the Iraqi Shiite leadership headed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and a future Shiite prime minister and government members that they would be better off using him as their go-between for talking to Washington, instead of doing so directly as they do today.

Blair’s message was underscored by pointed comments and leaks to the British press:

  1. The small, 7,500-strong British contingent in charge of the cities of Basra and al-Amara in southern Iraq is doing a much more efficient job than the Americans are in Najef, Karbala, al-Kufa and Baghdad’s Sadr City slum district.
    Moreover, large-scale attacks against firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr and his Mehdi Army militia are unnecessary and may damage Shiite shrines. Negotiations are the way to go. In short, if the British army were in charge in Najef and al-Kufa instead of the US military, matters would not have gotten so out of hand.

  2. The Sunday Telegraph reported on May 23 that Blair would soon be calling for a British-led NATO rapid reaction force to take control of the whole of southern Iraq.
    A British defense ministry spokesman would not confirm or deny the report. “Our position has not changed over the past couple of weeks. We are in discussions with our coalition partners and no decision has been taken on troop deployment,” he said.

Blair’s siren call to Shiites

But the Shiites could take this as a broad hint at Blair’s ability and willingness to recruit NATO members as backing for Britain’s takeover of exclusive control of southern Iraq, while keeping the Americans out.

Blair took it upon himself to speak for Europe. He conveniently forgot that the NATO rapid reaction force includes Spanish troops, who were withdrawn from Iraq just this week, as well as a contingent from France, which president Jacques Chirac is utterly determined not to send to Iraq in any circumstances.

The United States expects Blair will continue to try to promote his plan for three main reasons:

  1. Any sign of the British premier acting independently of Washington is popular with the British public.

  2. It holds hope for Britain to attain the role of key power in the Shiite south and its oil fields, restoring some of the UK’s major player standing in the region which faded after the 1950s. Blair would be able to hold up this strategic gain to vindicate his joining hands with President George W. Bush and going to war to overthrow Saddam Hussein against widespread protest in Britain.

  3. Even if his plan does not take off, its very existence may still drive a wedge between the United States and Sistani. Blair would be content for the moment with a modicum of British influence in the counsels of the Shiite leaders of Najaf as a first step toward cutting down total American influence in southern Iraq. It would also strengthen Britain’s hand as a bargaining partner against Washington and show Iraq's rulers-in-waiting that London’s support might be available should they decide to stand up to the Americans.

Blair’s game is no secret to fellow UN security council members as they debate the Iraq sovereignty draft resolution. Russia says more work is needed on the text and complains of gaps in the handover process, such as the composition of the temporary government. Moscow has chosen to wait and see if the new Iraqi administration is truly sovereign and independent or a collection of stooges and yes-men deferring to the Americans and Shiite and Kurdish leaders. If the latter, Russia will be in no hurry to vote in favor of the resolution and may even resort to a veto, thereby joining Britain in the camp of troublemakers and nay-sayers.

China is following a similar course, albeit more directly. Beijing wants it stated in plain language that coalition forces will get their marching orders from the Iraqi government – something the United States will never accept.

France’s Chirac, who spoke at length with Bush by telephone early this week, is asking for changes in the draft to boost Iraqi sovereignty by several notches. .

Our Washington sources are told that all of these demands would take Iraq very far from the concepts held by Bush, UN secretary Kofi Annan, his Iraq envoy Lakhmar Brahimi and Bush’s Iraqi adviser, Robert Blackwill for the country’s future.

With the transition deadline only four weeks off, this foursome is trusting in the new Iraqi government adjusting to the realities of US policy and presence as relayed via the Shiite leaders of Najef and the Kurdish leaders of Irbil. Any displays of undue independence by incoming governing officials would seriously encumber the US Bush and American forces in Iraq, on top of the challenges posed by the terrorist-backed Sunni insurgency.

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