British battalion commander, Lt. Col. Patrick Sanders, on the reality in Basra.
HH: Early today, I got a letter from, E-mail from my friend, Michael Yon, embedded in Southern Iraq with the Brits down there. And he said the person you have to talk to you is Lt. Col. Patrick Sanders. Lt. Col. Sanders, commander of the 4th Battalion, the Rifle Station in Basra. I’m pleased now to talk to him from Iraq. Lt. Col. Sanders, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
PS: Thanks, Mr. Hewitt.
HH: Thanks for your service. Can you give us, because there’s a lot of reporting that Basra’s in chaos, and gone to hell in a hand basket since you folks have changed your deployment. What is the situation in Basra right now?
PS: Well, I don’t know where the reporting’s coming from. The situation that we see here is that Basra is pretty stable. When we were serving down in the Palace during the period from about May when we first arrived here until just at the beginning of September when we left, for the vast majority of that period, except for the last two weeks, it was hell in a hand basket. We took somewhere in the region of 2,000 rounds of indirect fire, we got hit by about 100 IED’s, and it’s pretty much 100% chance of getting involved in a firefight every time we went out. But 90% of that violence was directed against us and the Iraqi leadership in the form of, if you like, the security czar down here, a guy called General Mohan, who told us that we were part of the problem. We were confusing Shia loyalties, and that if they could, if he could deliver a ceasefire, the most constructive thing we could do would be to withdraw and to leave it to the Iraqi Security Forces to handle. And since we’ve withdrawn, violence in Basra has dropped down to, well, very, very low levels.
HH: Now behind that calm, is there a giving over of the city to radical Shia militias? Or is the Iraqi Security Forces stepping up and standing in?
PS: I don’t see the militias trying to exercise or fighting at the moment. Are the Iraqi Security Forces perfect? No, far from it. But what we’ve got is for the first time, probably, in the last four years, we’ve got some decent Iraqi leadership. We’ve got two generals, one in charge of the police, and one in overall command, who are both pretty determined to remain loyal to the central government. And they’ve effectively purged about 3,000 policemen and members of the armed forces out here, from the Iraqi armed forces, who are locals, and who really have been infiltrated, and have had loyalty to the militias rather than to the Security Forces. They’ve gone now. And increasingly, the balance of power lies with the Iraqi Security Forces rather than with the militias. It’s worth saying, though, that the militias, at the moment, are operating under pretty much a self-imposed ceasefire, so the situation is calm at the moment. It could break down again. As each day passes, we get a sense that, as I say, the balance of power is passing to the Iraqi Security Forces. And we can always re-intervene, if it’s necessary.
HH: Now Lt. Col. Sanders, I read in a story in the Telegraph a couple of days ago a quote from you that says we are engaged, or we have been engaged effectively in a proxy war with Iran, and if that resumes, then they, the Iraqi Security Forces, will need us to help. Any doubt in your mind that Iran intends to destabilize this country?
PS: It’s…I’m only a battalion commander, so I don’t see the sort of detailed strategic intelligence reporting or assessments that go on. What I do know is that while we were down in Basra, an awful lot of the violence, if not all the violence against us was enabled, sponsored and equipped by neighboring countries, and in our case, Iran. The ordinance that we would pick up after a mortar or a rocket attack in the Palace very clearly was brand new, and was certainly coming across from the borders. So at that point, I think Iran probably had it in mind to try to force, or try to inflict what they would see as a defeat on both the British forces and the U.S. And they probably figured that it was in their interest, that an unstable Basra was in their interests. I’m not sure that’s quite the case anymore, because what has united a lot of the militias, or was to find that the vast majority of militias that was fighting us was a sense of Iraqi nationalism, and they resent interference by Iran. And increasingly, I think, we’re seeing the sort of grass roots militias, loyal to Muqtada al Sadr, pursuing a nationalist agenda, rather than one that favors Iran. And I think that’s constructive.
HH: Now Col. Sanders, do you see the security forces, the Iraqi Security Forces there in Basra as being loyal to the central government of Prime Minister Maliki? Or are they independent actors of some sort?
PS: No, for the moment, certainly the leadership, and probably down to the sort of middle ranking levels, are certainly loyal to the central government. Are there still elements of the Iraqi Security Forces who are, have loyalties to militias? Yes, of course there are. They’re not perfect. But increasingly, as I say, the removal of indigenous forces, and replacing them with forces from elsewhere in Iraq, has removed that problem. And I think as days go by, each day goes by, you can sense their confidence increase. And I lived out here in the 70’s. I grew up in Baghdad. And my memories of that time are of a very, very strong sense of Iraqi nationalism that overcame all the other sort of motivating factors, whether they were sectarian or whatever else. So I’ve always been optimistic in the long term about Iraq. I think that Iraqi nationalism is what motivates people, and we’re increasingly seeing now with the Security Forces out here as well.
HH: Col. Sanders, why were you living in Baghdad as a child?
PS: Well, my father was the defense attaché. We had the U.S. interest section in the British Embassy there at the time. It was a great place to grow up.
HH: Now do you think that Iraqis, after all the turmoil and the chaos of the last four years, are still glad to be free of Saddam? Would they do it again if they knew?
PS: They certainly would tell us, they’d certainly tell us that they are. They are…there’s no question that everybody, certainly in this part of the country, is delighted that Saddam has gone. And they see that as a really positive step, and they’re grateful to the Coalition for doing it. I think that we would all have preferred that the last four years had been considerably easier and more peaceful than it has been, but it may be that through all of this, we do get a stable and a strong Iraq that eventually emerges.
HH: From what you see daily as a battalion commander, do you believe the tide has turned in other parts of Iraq, and not just in Basra and the southern part of Iraq?
PS: It’s very difficult to tell, because as I say, as a battalion commander, all you do is you worry about your own guys, and you don’t worry too much about what’s going on elsewhere. But some of the reporting that I hear and see, and certainly what Michael’s been telling me, and he really does travel around the country, is that you do get a sense the tide may just be beginning to turn. To use Churchill’s quote, it may not be the beginning of the end.
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HH: Lt. Col. Sanders, thanks for sticking with me. I don’t know that I’ve ever interviewed anyone I can ask this to before, someone who’s grown up in Baghdad as you did years ago, and is back in uniform now for many years. Then and now, how does life for the ordinary Iraqi compare today with what you saw when you were growing up in Baghdad all those years ago?
PS: It’s very much worse now. Iraq was pretty much a first world country in the 70’s. Saddam as vice president had just nationalized the oil industry. They had huge wealth and huge resources, and they were really invested in infrastructure and employment. So it was a great place to live. And Iraq then was defined far more by secularism than by religion, so I was able to freely cycle around the city in a way that I probably couldn’t have done in London. And the Iraqis were a very good, kind people. So this generation under Saddam really has suffered. They had a wonderful opportunity in the 70’s, but Saddam snatched it from them.
HH: And today in Basra, how are people living? Is the power three hours a day? Is it ten hours a day? Do they have what they need to eat? Are there jobs in stores, etc?
PS: Yeah, there are. The power’s not great. I think it’s running about fourteen hours a day down here, but I’m not entirely sure. But life goes on. Business works. People have got employment, people go about their daily lives, and to be honest, even the Iraqis who were begging us not to leave the city are now expressing a certain amount of gratitude that we have, because the violence has diminished significantly, for now, anyway, since we left. So yeah, they can go about relatively normal lives.
HH: And I’d like to close by asking you to talk a little bit about British forces. I know I and this audience are very grateful to you and your colleagues there for serving in the Coalition, and for Great Britain’s assistance in all this, and leading role in all this. How has the British armed forces changed over the last four years? I talked to General Simmons last month, deputy Coalition commander for the whole Coalition, and he said that the American forces have become as adaptable as they ever have. What’s the impact of the Iraqi war been on the British forces?
PS: Well, I think the first thing I’d do is pay tribute to the U.S. forces. I served, I worked for General Sanchez in Baghdad in 2003 and 2004. And I watched them changing even then in the early days. They’ve been incredibly adaptable. And the courage and commitment that your young men are showing is astonishing, particular as they’re serving often on fifteen month tours, compared to our six. And so that sort of commitment really does humble people like me and my riflemen. I think the other thing I’d say is just that we came in this together. We’ve shed a lot of blood together, and we’re not about to forget that. And if we’re not fighting in quite the same numbers, in Iraq as you are, we are stepping up our commitment in Afghanistan to fight alongside you there. We’ve adapted, we’ve adapted as well to the challenges of this war, and we’ve learned an enormous amount…we probably haven’t learned as much as we could have done, but we’ve adapted a lot. And I’ve got immense faith in my young men. They show incredible courage and commitment and resilience after some very, very heavy hits and casualty rates.
HH: Does the British media underserve the British military in Iraq the way that the American media underserves the American military in Iraq, Col. Sanders?
PS: That’s a political question. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of the British media have an agenda. They took a view fairly early on about this war, and they serve the military well in that they report the courage. They are loyal and faithful to the courage of the armed forces. There’s no questioning that. But they do chip away at the country’s confidence and commitment to the war in the longer term. Whether that’s right or wrong, I’m not the one to judge. But it’s sometimes difficult serving in an unpopular war.
HH: And how much time have you spent in Iraq, Col. Sanders?
PS: Well, on operations, just over a year, so nothing like what most of your guys have been through. But all told, I guess six years now.
HH: Six years in Iraq? Wow.
PS: Well, six years if you include my four years as a kid…
PS: Then six years in total, but just over a year, a year and a bit as…on operations now.
HH: Wow. Are you fluent in Arabic, Col?
PS: You know, I was as a kid, but I’ve forgotten most of it now.
HH: What’s next for you? How much longer are you and the rifles going to stay in Iraq?
PS: We’ll serve for another two months, and then we’ll rotate out of here, and get replaced by another regiment, and we’ll be back on the front line, I guess, in about a year or so, either in Iraq or in Afghanistan.
HH: Well, I hope we can stay in touch when you get to Great Britain, and can have you back on the show. I appreciate very much your taking the time, Colonel, and thanks for your service, and for the service of your men as well in defense of a free Iraq. I appreciate it very much.
End of interview.