Hasan Suroor

Iraq lies at the heart of a simmering tension between the two countries with American officials publicly accusing the British army of failing to pull its full weight in Basra.

With Tony Blair gone and the authority of George W. Bush rapidly draining away, the much flaunted U.K.-U.S. “special relationship” looks in trouble as the new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown seeks to restore a semblance of independence to London’s foreign policy that, for most Britons, had become embarrassingly subservient to Washington under his predecessor.

Iraq lies at the heart of the simmering tension between the two countries with American officials publicly accusing the British army of failing to pull its full weight in Basra, the only province under its control; and of planning to “cut and run” instead of continuing — in Mr. Blair’s famous phrase — to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with America until the “job is done,” a euphemism for so long as Americans remain bogged down there.

The context for this is provided by Britain’s plans to draw down most of its 5,500 troops over the next few months even as Americans are sending in more. The process of British pullout, already under way, was accelerated this week when more troops moved out from the Basra Palace to a base near the airport effectively ending Britain’s physical military presence in the only city that was left under its jurisdiction.

Americans argue that Iraqi forces are not yet ready to take control and have warned that the British move could prove “catastrophic.” Basra, they claim, has already descended into a “gangland” because of the British army’s allegedly lax approach, and a further reduction of troops is a prescription for disaster.

The most scathing attack came from General Jack Keane, a high-profile retired American officer regarded close to the White House. He has said that because of British tactics, Basra has become a city of “gangland warfare.”

“I think what has happened is that they [the militants] know British numbers are going down and see the character of the operations is changing,” he told The Daily Telegraph.

Since then, a number of other senior American figures have spoken in a similar vein in what is turning out to be a torrent of “abuse” from across the pond, as one British commentator put it. Leading American experts who have called the British mission in southern Iraq a failure include Frederick Kagan of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute and one of the architects of the U.S. “surge” policy. There have been suggestions that the British forces are leaving because they have been effectively “defeated” by militants.

This has infuriated even staunch American supporters in Britain. “Is this all the thanks we get, Mr. President?” screamed a headline in The Sunday Telegraph, once a cheer-leader for the Bush administration. Beneath the headline was a commentary by its columnist Iain Martin who admitted that even a pro-war enthusiast like him found the “sustained attacks” from President Bush’s senior advisers over the top. What he found specially unacceptable was that the “sniping is licensed by the increasingly friendless White House.” He reminded American politicians and generals that the special relationship was a “two-way street” and if they wanted to save it they must treat British Atlanticists with “some respect.” As he saw it, the relationship was as good as over for the remaining period of the Bush presidency.

Britain’s military establishment has reacted sharply to American criticism and, in turn, laid the blame for the current mess in Iraq on America’s doors. Sir Mike Jackson, who was head of the British army at the time of Iraq invasion and worked closely with Americans, has described America’s post-invasion policy as “short-sighted” and “intellectually bankrupt.” This, according to him, was reflected in the then U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s pompous comment that American forces “don’t do nation-building.” He singled out Mr. Rumsfeld as the man “most responsible for the current situation in Iraq.”

Sir Mike’s remarks, contained in his forthcoming autobiography Soldier and widely commented upon in the British media, suggest that the current tensions between London and Washington have their roots in the two countries’ divergent approach to Iraq at the start of the invasion. Indeed, it is well-known that British and American commanders did not always see eye to eye but this is the first time that the extent of their differences has come to light. The pro-invasion and pro-U.S. Times noted that Sir Mike’s “outspoken” and “unprecedented attack” was likely to further “inflame tensions between Britain and the U.S.”

His criticism has found widespread support. Major General Tim Cross, a senior military officer involved in post-invasion strategy, echoed Sir Mike saying the U.S. planning was “fatally flawed” and that, more than anybody else, Mr. Rumsfeld should take the rap for it. Former Conservative foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind went a step further and said the real blame lay with the occupant of the White House.

“I think one of the most fundamental criticisms is not just that Rumsfeld was incompetent which he was but his boss George Bush actually made the extraordinary decision to put the Pentagon and Rumsfeld in control of political nation-building after the actual war ended,” he said.

As the war of words escalated, Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Defence Secretary Des Browne took the unusual step of writing a joint article in Washington Post to respond to American criticism and “set the record straight.” They rejected U.S. claims that the British mission in Basra had failed and defended its actions. The U.S. criticism of Britain’s role in southern Iraq was simply “misplaced,” they said.

There is a growing sense that the aggressive anti-British rhetoric emanating from Washington goes beyond legitimate criticism and is prompted by a perception in the Bush camp that Mr. Brown has decided to dump the Blair-constructed alliance in order to win applause at home ahead of a possible mid-term election.

Britain’s planned withdrawal from Basra has huge symbolic significance for President Bush at a time when he is struggling to shore up support for his Iraq policy. Any sign of “desertion” by his closest ally at this point would be seized by his critics to claim that the ship is well and truly sinking. No wonder, President Bush is so keen for Britain to “stay the course” along with Americans. His pleading has the ring of “Et tu Brutus?”

‘Tense exchanges’

The issue dominated the headlines during Mr. Brown’s first visit to Washington as Prime Minister last month. The Bush administration voiced frustration after Mr. Brown pointedly refused to endorse the Blair line that British forces would not leave without America’s consent. Rather, he made it clear that a decision on a British pullout would be made purely “on the military advice of our commanders on the ground” suggesting that he would not be influenced by American pressure. In what the BBC labelled a shorthand for “rather tense exchanges,” he described his talks with President Bush as “full and frank.” U.S. officials were later reported as saying that the President was “disappointed” that he did not get a firm commitment from Mr. Brown to stay put in Iraq.

To be fair to the Americans, their fears that the alliance with Britain is on its last legs were fuelled by the remarks of some of Mr. Brown’s Ministers within days of coming to office. First, Foreign Office Minister Mark Malloch Brown, a former U.N. deputy secretary-general, declared that Britain and America would no longer be “joined at the hip” and then the International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander, who is also a close Brown confidant, made comments that were interpreted in Washington as indicating a shift in Britain’s relationship with America. While not directly criticising the American foreign policy, he attacked “isolationism” and repeatedly advocated an “internationalist” and “multilateralist” approach to global affairs.

His remarks on the eve of Mr. Brown’s visit caused sufficient furore in Washington for the Prime Minister’s spokesman to deny that they were directed at the Bush administration. But Americans were clearly not impressed and as the BBC pointed out, Mr Alexander’s statement was to be seen “in the context of other measures for change taken by Mr. Brown, including the appointment of Mark Malloch Brown,” a harsh critic of U.S. policies since his days at the U.N.

So, where does it go from here? There is no doubt that the fizz has gone out of the “special relationship,” raising questions about Britain’s continuing military role in Iraq. Moreover, the U.S.-led alliance over Iraq is effectively finished. But there appears to be no immediate threat to long-term trans-Atlantic relations.

Both Mr. Brown and President Bush are trying hard to make sure that the current strains don’t turn into a full-blown diplomatic crisis though the big test would be how Britain reacts if Americans decide to go into Iran.