Iraq: Black Watch

The Black Watch regiment was clearly moved to Baghdad for political reasons. Blair wanted to help Bush in the US elections and also prove that British troops are needed in Iraq. Once again he has lied to the British public and he has shown that he is prepared to risk the lives of ordinary soldiers to achieve his own political objectives. Not by Christmas! The troops should be pulled out now.

On October 21 Prime Minister Tony Blair confirmed that the British government had agreed to a US request to redeploy the approximately 850 troops and support staff of the Black Watch regiment from their base in southern Iraq to positions near Baghdad.

The request from the US military had been made on October 10 and the British government had maintained the pretence that it was “considering” the request for nearly 2 weeks, in consultation with the military. A leaked email revealed that a British soldier had sent an angry email to an armed forces web site saying that his unit was being prepared for the move even before Blair had made the announcement.

Political Motivations – Fate of Bush and Blair linked

There were many angry accusations that the motivations for the redeployment were in fact political, and not for military reasons as Blair had repeatedly stated. He was desperate to show that the decision had nothing to do with the US elections and was strictly a military and tactical decision. The government continually claimed that the decision had been made by military commanders and not the government.

Blair also needed to demonstrate that the redeployment was not evidence that he was simply Bush’s poodle, but proved that Britain was needed in Iraq and could act on its own. As Bush was heading into the US presidential election, he was facing criticism from Kerry and co. on US actions in Iraq as well as criticisms that Bush had not sufficiently convinced European allies to assist in Iraq.

Kerry seemed to be gaining the upper hand by claiming that Bush had damaged the image of the US around the world, alienated the allies of the US and that he was mishandling the war. In reality, Blair was desperate to help Bush, for if Bush lost the election it would be seen as a condemnation of the war and the policies of Bush. This would also be a vote against Blair, and would strengthen the calls for the removal of Blair as leader of the Labour Party. Blair’s hold over the Labour Party has been weakened over the last period, and his position as leader has become more tenuous over recent months as the calls for his removal have increased. A defeat of Bush in the US elections could also have translated into a defeat for Blair in the Labour Party or even in the upcoming British elections.

The redeployment of the Black Watch allowed the Bush administration to kill two birds with one stone. The use of British troops in the “valley of death” and in the assault on Fallujah allowed Bush to claim that the US was not alone in Iraq and that it did indeed have allies committed to fighting “terrorism”, and insurgents. Using the Black Watch regiment also meant that Bush and the US military would not have to announce the additional call up of US troops at such a sensitive time during the final leg of the US elections.

“Operational Constraints”

So strong was the opposition to the move that the Blair government suggested that the redeployment would have a limit of 30 days. Blair even announced that the Black Watch would be home before Christmas. This is a pledge that may come back to haunt him, as it did British commanders at the beginning of World War 1.

British commanders in Iraq were in fact dismayed that Blair had made this claim given the “fast moving situation” in Iraq, and because Blair’s announcement had put them under “operational constraints”. The current redeployment of the Black Watch is to last until December 3.

What these little facts reveal is that both the military and the government can feel the pressure of public opinion back home – not to mention the protests of the families of the soldiers presently in Iraq and several MPs, which have become stronger recently. The opposition to the redeployment of the Black Watch exposed the general opposition to the occupation of Iraq. A recent poll showed that three-fifths of British people were opposed to the war—the highest number yet. This is what compelled Blair to say that they would be home before Christmas. Yet the military may indeed need to keep them near Baghdad or in Iraq longer than this – but this might now prove impossible, given that the breaking of yet another one of Blair’s promises could lead to public outrage in Britain and force the government and military to send them home anyway.

“Mission Creep”

Many people have justifiably wondered why US forces need the assistance of British forces in Iraq. There are some 138,000 US troops in Iraq compared with 8,500 British troops. So why does the US need the help of some 800 troops to watch their backs as they press on into Fallujah?

Aside from the political motivations, there may have actually been military motivations as well. Revealingly, Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said in relation to the redeployment: “The armored battle group that will deploy brings important qualities of extensive training, experience and hard-edge combat capability. It is not the case, as is often implied, that there are 130,000 U.S. troops that could take on this task. In fact, fewer than a third of U.S. forces in Iraq have the requisite combat capability, and of those even fewer have the armored capability that is needed.”

It would appear that US forces in Iraq are over-stretched. With the insurgency spreading throughout central and northern Iraq, in cities such as Ramadi, Fallujah, Baquba and Mosul, which has become the second front of the insurgency, and the announcement of elections in Iraq for January 30, 2005, the US may need to send more troops to Iraq. The US and UK will not be able to hold down an entire population, no matter how many troops they have there, and the fact that the US has requested UK assistance shows that their forces are stretched. This raises the prospect of the US and UK getting sucked further and further into the quagmire in Iraq by sending more and more troops in an attempt to quell a growing insurgency. Haven’t we also seen this before – in the Vietnam war?

Another problem is that some of the allies in the “Coalition of the Willing” do not seem to be so willing anymore. The Polish government has announced a reduction in their troops, shrinking the coalition even further. And in recent days Hungary has announced that it is pulling out. The Czechs plan to pull out by the end of February, the Dutch by the end of March, and Japan is feeling pressure to withdraw. As opposition to the war grows around the world, for these governments involved in the fiasco, the war in Iraq is becoming more and more a foreign and domestic policy disaster. They thought they would send a small number of troops, curry the favour of the US in what they thought would be a relatively easy task of pacifying and occupying the country, and cash in on the spoils of war in one of the most oil rich countries in the world. What has happened? The armed resistance is growing larger and is increasingly difficult to control. Coalition troops are coming under increasing attack, and the citizens of coalition countries are being kidnapped and killed. With each passing day the decision to send troops to Iraq is becoming more and more of a disaster, provoking the anger and indignation of the masses at home as well as in Iraq. The reduction of coalition troops will place further strain on the already strained US forces, and could force the Bush administration to send yet more troops, especially as we near the election date in Britain.

This has led to increased concern for future British missions outside the British sector, or so-called “mission creep”. Soldiers’ families and the people of Britain are becoming increasingly alarmed that British forces may be dragged from the relative “peace” of southern Iraq into fighting the insurgency which is mainly in northern Iraq under US forces. This can only mean more casualties and a longer stay for troops.

Hoon has stated that British troops may need to replace the Black Watch near Baghdad and that there is no time limit for their return. In the Independent, General Sir Mike Jackson, the Chief of General Staff, who is in charge of the British army, contradicted him and was reported as saying “that when the Black Watch are withdrawn, as promised, before Christmas from Camp Dogwood, they will not be replaced by another British unit. Their task was related to the US-led action in Fallujah, and now that has ended, there is no operational need for the British to send more troops to Camp Dogwood.”

Later he said, “The military task will not be there. There will be no requirement.” He did add however that if needed he was prepared to send more British troops to other parts of Iraq. It has also been confirmed by Tony Blair that if necessary, more British troops could be deployed outside of the British sector.

“They all have been [in the Basra area] until this one-off deployment of the Black Watch. That is not to say there may be a military requirement within the coalition as a whole for a British unit to be elsewhere. That is not mission creep in my view. The mission is Iraq. The mission is to provide Iraq with its political and economic future,” he said.

We are being told two different things by the government and the military to allow them to see what public opinion would be in the event that the Black Watch does not come home in time for Christmas and in the event that British soldiers also need to be redeployed in the US sector.

It has also been revealed that the commander of the Black Watch had raised concerns about the redeployment. In a series of emails that were leaked to the press he feared “every lunatic terrorist from miles around to descend on us like bees to honey.” This is exactly what happened. The Black Watch has been under attack nearly every day since their move.

Expressing a lack of confidence in the government and its motives for the move he then said in the email, “I hope that the Government knows what it has got itself into. I’m not sure they full appreciate the risks. The marines we have taken over from have taken nine dead and 197 wounded since July. I hope we do better.” This quote alone proves that the decision to redeploy the Black Watch was not a military decision made by military commanders who then requested that the government approve the move as Blair and Hoon said. It was a politically motivated decision on the part of the government.

“Hearts and Minds”

Many people were justifiably upset that British troops were being sacrificed to aid in Bush’s re-election. Within the first 24 hours of the redeployment the Black Watch came under attack and within the first 48 hours, they had suffered their first casualties. Three soldiers were killed in a suicide bomb attack. Five Black Watch soldiers have now died and 12 have been injured.

This is the regiment’s third tour of duty, and they have been away for nearly 400 days during the last three years. The soldiers are tired. Private Scott Wheelans of Fife said: “This is the longest tour I’ve been on. I’m so knackered I can’t remember what day it is. All the lads want to do is just finish the job and get home now.” Recently one soldier reported that they had no time to grieve for fallen comrades because they had too much work to do.

The Black Watch was put under the tactical command of US marines, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Agreement has already been reached between the UK and US commands on the tasks of the Black Watch and if the US marine commander wants to change these he would have to refer back to General Rollo, the British commander in Basra, who remains in overall operational command. The commanding officer of the Black Watch will determine how those tasks are performed within his geographical area of operations.

The press was full of reports that the British commanders insisted on this so that they could maintain the image of their troops as distinct from the image of US forces. The British press is full of reports that British soldiers have a kinder, gentler image than their US counterparts and that they are more accepted by Iraqis. This myth continues even though there are also reports in the press citing the abuse and shooting of civilians at the hands of British soldiers. There are currently 156 cases of abuse and torture of civilians and Iraqi soldiers at the hands of British forces currently under investigation by the UN.

The true feelings of the Iraqis towards the occupation forces was revealed in an incident last week, where 100 soldiers from the Black Watch went on foot to local villages to speak to locals – complete with leaflets that had a photo of a British soldier embraced by two little Iraqi children. How did the Iraqis respond to this effort to win their “hearts and minds”? The Black Watch unit came under mortar fire.

Military Families Against the War

Just before Remembrance Day relatives of soldiers killed or serving in Iraq demonstrated their opposition to the war and their anger towards the government. The Military Families Against the War placed a wreath along with a note at 10 Downing Street. The letter of protest declared that, “the war was based on lies, deceit and false information.” It called for the withdrawal of British forces and ended with the following words: “Well Mr. Blair you have been true to your word on one point. You are getting some of the Black Watch home for Christmas, tragically injured, maimed and others in body bags.”

Several family members were outraged. James Buchanan, who has two sons in the Black Watch in Iraq, said at a protest later, “The Ministry of Defence says it will bring the boys home for Christmas. That’s what they said in 1914. How many will come home in boxes? Let’s fight Blair.”

In a demonstration of his anger and frustration he then screamed that he wanted to murder Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon for lying about the redeployment of troops to Fallujah. “If I see that man in the street I will kill him,” he said. “I will slit that man’s throat. He will not apologise to the people of Scotland. It’s a disgrace.”

And Black Watch soldier Craig Lowe, 18, was also bitter after his brother, Paul, 19, was killed with two other Black Watch troops near Fallujah. At his home in Glenrothes, he told reporters: “If Tony Blair had the balls to walk down my street, I’d run out with my little brother Stuart and we would knock him out. We wouldn’t hesitate.” He also said that he, and his brother who had died on duty, thought that Bush was an “a-hole” for sending them to Iraq for no good reason – only for oil and money.

It looks like the “hearts and minds” campaign has failed both at home and in Iraq.

End the Occupation

All the claims by the Bush and Blair governments that they were bringing freedom, democracy and peace to Iraq have been exposed as lies. US casualties in the war are now over 1,200, and 74 British servicemen have lost their lives in the war. The people of the UK and the US are growing increasingly angry that their troops, their sons, daughters and friends are dying in Iraq for nothing – or for the interests of imperialism.

We have no real idea of how many Iraqi civilians have died during the war. A recent scientific study released by The Lancet in October, gave a conservative estimate of 100,000 civilian deaths. This figure did not include deaths in Fallujah, and was released before the US assault on the city. If the data from Fallujah were to be included in the study, it is estimated that the number of civilian casualties would rise to 200,000. The bourgeois media prefers to place the number of civilian deaths somewhere between 14,000-16,000, but these figures only include the casualties reported in the press. They are playing their part in attempting to control public opinion, but this is bound to fail as more and more of the truth emerges.

US and UK imperialism have the blood of hundreds of thousands on their hands. The rising death toll of both Iraqi civilians and US and UK soldiers will continue to anger people at home, as will the images of the shooting of helpless prisoners by US forces in the assault on Fallujah. The outburst of anger by the Military Families Against the War is only a small and early expression of the overall anger felt by people in the UK towards the war. They were lied to about the reasons for the war, and now that “their boys” have come under increasing danger, and face death on a daily basis for no reason at all other than to further the interests of western imperialism their calls to bring the troops home will be strengthened.

In response to the public outcry against the war, and the political motivations for the redeployment of the Black Watch the bourgeois press has been full of glowing reports on the history of the Black Watch. Lt Col James Cowan, declared, “Frankly, this regiment beat Napoleon, beat the Kaiser and beat Hitler. For the Jocks of the Black Watch this is just the latest chapter in our history and another job to be done.” But the Black Watch is not battling rival imperialist powers nor dictators – they are battling a people who are rising up against an occupying army, and this is one battle they will not be able to win. What the commander also forgot to mention was another event in the history of the Black Watch – the role played by the regiment in Britain’s first invasion of Iraq when it occupied Tikrit.

It would seem that the British ruling class have forgotten the lessons of history. They have forgotten what happened in the 1920s in Iraq. Even the mighty British Empire, at that time the most powerful imperialist power on the planet, could not succeed in occupying Iraq or keeping the population under control. No matter what the imperialists do in Iraq it will be wrong. If they remain in Iraq they will face a growing insurrection against their occupying army – which will lead to further convulsions at home. This may force them to pull the troops out. It seems they have also forgotten the lessons of Vietnam, that the war was not lost on the battlefield but at home – and we have already seen what has happened to their hearts and minds campaign.

If they pull their forces out of Iraq, the puppet regime would be swept away within a matter of days. We cannot predict who would come to power, but a new regime in Iraq would undoubtedly not be friendly to the US and the UK. They would lose all hope of having direct access to Iraqi oil or establishing a base of operations in the Middle East.

The Iraqi people feel that they have gotten rid of one dictator, only to have him replaced by another. This is symbolized in Abu Ghraib, a prison where Saddam used to have prisoners tortured, and where US forces continued right where he left off. Hundreds of thousands have been killed, and their country lies in ruins with no water or electricity. This is what democracy looks like to Iraqis – the jackboot of the armies of the UK and the US. As the atrocities continue to mount, so the resistance against the occupation will get stronger in Iraq, so will the opposition grow at home. More Iraqi civilians and US and UK soldiers will continue to die for the lies of Bush and Blair. We must demand the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of imperialist troops from Iraqi soil – the Iraqi people must be allowed to determine their own fate and their own future.