This story has been ignored, from what I can see, by every single British newspaper and TV news programme, but if true it is highly significant. Buried away towards the end of a story in yesterday’s New York Times, we learn that American soldiers have been fighting in towns deep in the nominally ‘British-controlled’ part of Southern Iraq.
The relevant passages are (bold added where appropriate):
‘In what appeared to be a separate operation deep in the south near the Iranian border, a ferocious battle between American troops and Shiite militants left at least 20 people dead and wounded scores more, Iraqi and American officials said.
‘The clashes, in Amara and Majjar al-Kabir, a pair of mostly Shiite towns just north of Basra, started early Monday. They were sparked by raids on what American officials described as a secret network involved in transporting “lethal aid” from Iran to Iraq, particularly deadly roadside bombs known as explosively formed penetrators, or E.F.P.’s.
‘Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, an American military spokesman in Iraq, said American troops have intensified their focus on finding and dismantling places where those weapons are built, like the towns raided Monday, because the weapons were especially hard to stop at the border. “It’s hard to catch because they are shipped as components, not completed weapons,” he said.
‘According to officials aligned with the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr in Basra, the fighting involved members of Mr. Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia. The battle appeared to be the largest clash with Mr. Sadr’s loosely affiliated gunmen since the start of the new American security plan in February.
‘In addition to the 20 dead, six suspects were wounded and one was detained, officials said. A hospital official said that at least 60 people were wounded. ‘
These towns weren’t on any ‘border’ between American and British forces, so we’re not looking at a case of hot pursuit. The two towns mentioned had a significant British military presence until recently. Amara had a British infantry battalion stationed in the town until 25 August 2006, and the UK occupation is described in some detail in Rory Stewart’s excellent memoir ‘Occupational Hazards’. Majar al-Kabir is where six British Military Policemen were killed in June 2003, and it too was frequently patrolled by UK forces. Basra, as the NYT notes, is only a few miles from both towns, and – as it doesn’t note- contains several thousand British troops. So why did US troops raid Amara and Majar?
We can discount the possibility that the NYT invented the story: a named US Army spokesman is on the record saying that US troops have been fighting in both towns. It is possible that this was a raid mounted by a joint team of British and US forces, and that the US Colonel forgot, or ‘forgot’, to mention the Brits. But if this was truly an entirely American raid, there are several possibilities, all highly disturbing.
Did the US ask the British to raid targets in the South and get a refusal? Did they then ask for, and get, British military approval for a raid by US forces? Did they simply go ahead and tell the British forces that they would be carrying out the raid? If the British refused to carry out the raid themselves, was this because there were insufficient British troops in the area to do so? Or because they thought that the raid was unnecessary, or would provoke the local civilian population?
If this was simply a raid carried out by a joint force of British and American special forces, then it is another piece of evidence that the war in the South is increasing in intensity, and that what appears to be Gordon Brown’s favoured strategy (remain as an occupier in Southern Iraq, whilst drawing down the number of troops deployed, as a sop to British public opinion) is unworkable: you can’t get away with PR stunts in war, not if the enemy doesn’t want you to.
The other possibilities are even worse: all of them imply that the US military have become impatient with the British conduct of operations in Southern Iraq, and that they have taken matters into their own hands.
UPDATE: One question I should have asked but didn’t: is the formal responsibility for military backup to Iraqi government forces in Amara and Majar the preserve of the British after the withdrawal? Or is it in a sort of legal no-man’s land, meaning that there is nothing formally preventing the Americans from moving forces in? This is the kind of question that seems like legal petifoggery but is actually vital to understanding how armies operate. If the Americans feel that they can’t move into towns near the biggest British base without sparking a major political row, they won’t. If they don’t feel that- and if they think that British troops have been insufficiently aggressive in dealing with insurgents, as a lot of US officers do think- then they will.