Why I am going to the Gulf with a heavy heart
By a serving officer
I have been a serving officer in Her Majesty's Armed Forces for more than 23 years and I am as proud to serve Britain today as I was when I was commissioned in 1980. I have seen British servicemen fight, die and kill for their country. I was involved in operations in the Falklands War, the Gulf War and peace-keeping in Bosnia. I am proud that I fought for my country.
After the Gulf War, I helped to administer and enforce the no-fly zones over Iraq. Since then I have returned to the Gulf theatre of operations several times and have seen the success which the no-fly zones have had in containing Saddam Hussein.
Over the last few months, however, I have grown increasingly uneasy with the British Government's policy towards Iraq and the seemingly inevitable war. In my service career, I have never felt compelled to speak to a journalist or contact a newspaper. Until now. I should also add that I am not alone in my views. Many junior, middle-ranking and senior military officers whom I have encountered have similar concerns over this Government aligning itself so closely with the Bush strategy. The last thing a commander in the field wants to see is his soldiers die in what many in the Armed Forces believe is a misguided military campaign.
For 10 years the Government's policy towards Saddam has, or rather had, been that of containment set within a wider strategy of regional stability. This country needs peace and stability in the region to allow the unimpeded flow of oil from the Gulf to the West and for trade to prosper. So our official line was that while we deplored Saddam's human rights record, we (Britain) were not prepared to change the regime. Who ruled Iraq was a matter for Iraq.
However, our policy was not a heartless one. The no-fly zones were imposed by the UN for humanitarian reasons. The UN called upon Saddam to stop persecuting the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs and used the no-fly zones both to monitor his compliance and prevent the Iraqi air force from attacking. I frequently saw intelligence from MI6 and other intelligence services which indicated that Saddam was not a threat to the West. Neither was there any evidence to suggest that he would supply terrorist groups with chemical or biological weapons.
After 1994, when Saddam moved his Republican Guard units towards Kuwait, the US imposed a no-drive zone south of the 32nd parallel. Thus Saddam was boxed in within his boundaries like a scorpion in a glass case, unable to interfere in a wider Gulf policy of stability. The reason we were happy to contain Saddam was that he posed no threat to the West, or in reality, to his neighbours. His priority is to remain in power. He knew that any first use of chemical or biological weapons or any movement of his troops towards any of his borders was likely to incur the awesome wrath of the US and his position would become untenable and his reign would be over.
Alongside three of his neighbours, Israel, Syria and Iran, he has sought to obtain biological and chemical weapons. Unlike these three, he has used them against his own people and against Iran. But on both occasions there was no chance of retaliation. It was the threat of retaliation that also prevented such weapons being used during the Gulf War in 1991. The Americans made it clear that if Saddam used his chemical weapons the Pentagon would authorise the use of nuclear weapons against Iraq.
The question I and my colleagues want to ask Mr Blair is: "Why attack Iraq now?" We had a successful policy of containment. Why risk unravelling all that for a regime change? What threat does the Iraqi regime really pose to Britain? I, like many of my colleagues, believe that those questions have still not been answered adequately.
The current course of action carries its own imponderable risk. There is outrage throughout the Arab world at Britain and America has taken over Iraq at a time when the divide between Islam and the West is the most dangerous element in world affairs. The deepening of this divide plays into the hands of the real threat, al-Qaeda. Support for al-Qaeda on the "Arab Street" could lead to the violent overthrow in the Al-Saud ruling family in Saudi Arabia, a pro-Western government. The Shah of Iran, another ally in the region, was supposedly invulnerable but he fell very quickly and was succeeeded by a regime deeply hostile to the West.
The stability of the West's economy relies to a significant extent on the Saudi oil fields. One only has to think of the panic that overtook the country in 2001 when fuel distribution was interrupted by protesters to imagine what could happen if oil failed to flow from the Gulf. Why risk all of this to change a maverick regime? For the American people it is quite simple: Saddam is a public enemy continuously demonised by the newspapers and politicians. More worryingly, many within the US administration have no grasp of the realities of the Middle East. There is a strong urge for revenge for September 11 and Iraq represents a suitable soft target. The US and our Armed Forces are immeasurably superior to the Iraqi army, which is badly equipped and poorly motivated.
On this side of the Atlantic, the clamour to stop the war seems to be getting louder. While the public are content to let our Armed Forces risk their lives containing a threat, they are less willing to support an offensive that makes no sense. The fall-out from incompetent diplomacy may well see the demise of Mr Blair. But politicians come and go. What is more worrying for me and my colleagues is the prospect of public opinion turning against the Armed Forces as the tool of the Government's incompetence.
Lastly, I should add that I felt compelled to speak when my wife said she could no longer tell colleagues and clients that I was a member of HM Forces about to be engaged in the Gulf because of the hostility of their reaction. This I found deeply unsettling and something which I never thought would happen.
I find myself in a difficult position. Soon, I will be in the Gulf and I will do my duty to the best of my ability. But it will be with a heavy heart.