The Treasures of War: ‘Britain’s Great Adventure in Basra’

The Editors

Originally posted on News Unspun, 26 October 2012

Radio 4’s Today programme of 16 October provided rare, frank insight into the priorities behind the British occupation of Iraq, and the inherent entanglement between the military effort and ‘British business’. Presenter John Humphrys discussed the closure of the British consulate in Basra with financier Andrew Alderson and executive chairman of the Iraq Britain Business Council, Baroness Nicholson, and addressed the potential effects for British business investments in the region. The discussion highlights the resultant profitability of the UK’s involvement in the war on Iraq, in particular the six-year occupation of Basra (which, as Nicholson described, ‘is going to be one of the most significant oil hubs of the globe’), and the sustained efforts to secure the region for the benefit of British corporations.

Concern was raised by all participants for the potential ill effects of the closure on British investments in Basra, echoing the ‘furious reaction from business leaders’ (as The Telegraph put it) following the announcement. In somewhat nostalgic tones, Humphrys quotes the British Consul general Nigel Haywood, who, following the invasion, was ‘so optimistic about Britain’s commercial hopes for Basra, with its vast oil resources’.

Baroness Nicholson describes the benefits currently reaped by business: ‘… we have a bunch of companies there … who are doing wonderfully well. If you just look at the Shell flared gas, for example; that’s an 18 billion dollar contract. If you just look at BP pumping out a million barrels of oil a day…’

The concern is that the closure of the consulate will leave current investments without government support and will ‘send the wrong message’ to business. Andrew Alderson, who had in 2003 been given ‘authority for over one fifth of Iraq’s finances’ emphasised how after ‘we put our people and we make this investment in people and time and motion, and then lives’, ‘we’ve got to see it through to the finish … I think at the moment there’s a danger that we are signalling a withdrawal and we are not seeing it through to a logical finish’.

In his opening comments Humphrys hypothesised that ‘future historians […] might well point at Basra as a tragic example of shattered hopes, of British lives and treasures squandered perhaps’.

The ‘squandering’ of ‘lives and treasures’ only stands, it seems, if British business is unable to continue to extract the region’s wealth. The underlying premise for all involved is that the 179 British lives lost (the effects of the occupation on the people of the region) don’t register as a concern, despite the emergence of reports that same week of birth defects in Basra ‘after British troops invaded’ are in vain only if profits cannot be made for British business.

Perhaps remembering the listening public, following 10 minutes of discussion, Baroness Nicholson reminds the others ‘that the loss of British lives was not designed to make commercial contracts [Humphrys quickly agrees] … it was to make freedom for the Basra people.’ (Humphrys: ‘of course’.)

Nicholson goes on to make several disingenuous statements, summarising why the Iraqis are ‘grateful that we [the British army] were there’: ‘They’ve got a semblance of democracy, they’ve got freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom to work, they’ve got education coming back, they’ve got a much better situation than before… they’re so grateful that we were there’ (listen below).

On the matter of freedom of speech, it is worth noting what Iraqi activist Yanar Mohammed told the Democracy Now! news programme in December 2011, discussing the Arab Spring uprising in Baghdad:

We demonstrated. The Arab Spring was there very strong but got oppressed in ways that were new to Iraqi people. Anti-riot police of the American style was something that we witnessed there. The big vehicles that sprayed us with the hot water, polluted water, pushed us out of these squares. And sound bombs were thrown at us, live ammunition; the full works. This is not a democratic country.

A BBC report in November 2011 also made note of the violent clampdown by security forces at the start of the Arab Spring in the country that Nicholson claims has freedom of speech.

On the comment that ‘they’ve got education coming back’, Nicholson’s somewhat sugar-coated colonial perspective lacks historical context, failing to note that it was the UN sanctions, backed by the UK that were responsible for the destruction of the education system in Iraq throughout the 1990s. Murtaza Hussain recently wrote for Al Jazeera about the sanctions on Iran (now) and Iraq (in the ’90s). On Iraqi education, he wrote that

The rapidly deteriorating economic environment due to sanctions had the necessary side-effect of severely undermining the Iraqi education system, which had been funded through oil revenues and had heretofore succeeded in producing historically high literacy rates among both the male and female  populations.

As much as Nicholson is upset at the closure of the consulate, she has some sense of relief knowing that ‘the British government has at last recognised the high value to British Industry of Iraq’. The disingenuous implication that the British government has not until now realised the ‘massive opportunities to profit’ (Humphrys words) spoken of by British business ‘in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war’, like Nicholson’s earlier claims, goes unchallenged by the Today show host. This despite evidence to the contrary. For example, the release of minutes from a Foreign Office meeting with BP in November 2002, five months before the invasion, noted that ‘Iraq is the big oil prospect. BP is desperate to get in there and anxious that political deals should not deny them the opportunity’.

Humphrys comments towards the end of the interview (made with a tone of seeming incredulity) point to the underlying rationale for the discussion (listen below):

It’s not a straight quid pro quo, of course, but nonetheless, surely, if a country has sent its young men to another country to die, to restore, to create democracy1 in that country you’d expect a bit of gratitude, wouldn’t you? (Emphasis added.)

Only after such distortion as took place in this discussion – reiterating the discredited justifications for the invasion of Iraq, omitting the human rights abuses committed during the British occupation, and touting the ‘semblance of democracy’ granted to the people of Iraq – could one reach such a conclusion.

A short clip of the comments from John Humphrys and Baroness Nicholson can be heard below. For the full discussion, listen on the BBC Radio 4 website

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