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
"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.”