By Roy Hattersley (THE GUARDIAN, 27/12/06):
Iraq - which for years has been an unmitigated tragedy - has turned into Grand Guignol, and, true to the traditions of that genre, horror and farce combine in equal measure. No doubt we should rejoice that al-Jamiat police station in Basra has been destroyed and its prisoners taken to the relative security of a compound in which detainees are hopefully not routinely tortured. But if a sick satire on an obscure television channel included a sketch about British troops attacking a unit of the police that they established and with whom they had been theoretically working for nearly four years, the outcry would not have been limited to complaints about undermining the morale of our troops under fire. We would have been told that the whole idea was too fantastical to sustain the lampoon.
But that is what really happened on Monday, and although the sound of the exploding bar-mines should presumably be music to the ears of everyone who supports the rule of law, a number of important questions lie unanswered in the rubble of what was, until Christmas morning, the headquarters of the Basra serious crimes unit. A witty military press officer suggested that the name related to what the 400 associated police officers did rather than what they prevented. But he did not make clear how long the British authorities have known that, among their regular activities, they crushed prisoners' hands and feet, electrocuted them and burned them with cigarettes. You will recall that one of the reasons given to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq was the obligation to save the people from that sort of atrocity. It now appears that, at least in al-Jamiat police station, the arrival of what is bravely described as democracy has not made much difference.
According to the official statement, the army had "clear directions" from Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, and Muhammad al-Waeli, Basra's governor, to "dissolve the unit". That, at least, is a relief. But what about General Muhammad al-Musawi, Basra's chief of police? He was reported to be "furious" at what he described as "an attempt to stir up trouble". Are we to continue working with this man? If he knew what was going on at al-Jamiat police station, he is too corrupt to head the Basra police force. If he did not know, he is too incompetent to hold down the job any longer. His importance lies in his status as physical embodiment of all that is wrong with the Iraq occupation. The place is unmanageable in part because nobody can be sure who is on whose side. The confusion of loyalties highlights the cause of the continuing horror. Most Iraqis did not want US and British troops there in the first place. Many of those who did changed their minds when they discovered that the number of murders had gone drastically up and the supply of water and electricity down since the liberators arrived.
The nature of the dilemma - faced by the coalition because of the boneheaded stupidity of the Washington neocons who dreamed up the invasion - is made clear by the proud boast that Basra's governor is on the side of the occupying coalition. Six months ago he supported the serious crimes unit at al-Jamiat, but Iraq is a nation of shifting alliances and the governor (a member of the Fadhila party) has been persuaded to change his ways by the Shia-led national government. I do not suggest that he will necessarily change back again halfway through 2007, but no one can have any doubt that the crosscurrents of inter-communal and religious disputes will continue to make the behaviour of Iraqi politicians unpredictable. It is all a very long way from the anticipated scenario of streets lined with grateful Iraqis waving stars and stripes and brandishing pictures of President Bush. Nor do pointless barbarities such as the planned execution of Saddam Hussein have any prospect of winning the occupation the popularity that has always eluded it.
Yet only last week one of those Washington free-enterprise "thinktanks" - which usually spend their time explaining that global warming is a myth and that widening the disparities of wealth is the best way to help the poor - suggested that America could solve the Iraq crisis by sending in another 200,000 troops. Putting aside the logistical problems that such a deployment would involve, one thing has to be said in favour of the strategy. All pretence at liberation has finally been abandoned. The sort of people who guided the coalition into the quagmire have decided that the only way to get out is to impose the will of the western powers by force on a reluctant - or downright hostile - people.
Of course, the new plan has no better prospects of success than the old. Everything that happens in Iraq confirms that we should not have gone there in the first place. That message was underlined by the unfortunate press officer who explained - or tried to justify - the delay in ending the torture and organisation of terror groups and assassination squads that was common practice at al-Jamiat police station. "First", he said, "we had to be sure of the police."
Nearly four years after US-led forces invaded and President Bush declared victory, the British headquarters in Basra could still not be sure where the police's loyalty lay. And General Ali Ibrahim, an Iraq army commander in the area, denounced the decision to clear out the serious crimes unit as illegal. Do we still believe that an orderly transition of power to a genuinely democratic Iraq is possible within the foreseeable future? The gloomy answer to that question is why, although the demolition of al-Jamiat police station is, in itself, a matter of rejoicing, the news also increases the general despair we should all feel about the catastrophe of Iraq. Thanks to George Bush and Tony Blair we are actors in a tragedy that seems to have no foreseeable conclusion. To pull out is to leave the people to the mercies of a hundred other serious crimes units. To remain is to intensify the hatred and bitterness of much of the law-abiding population. The worst diplomatic blunder since Suez? By comparison, Suez had a happy ending.