Death and numbers

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The Times – Leading articles: The loss of the 100th British soldier in Iraq would have been no less tragic if that man had been the 101st or 102nd. Death is not simply a matter of numbers. That there is a certain symbolism attached to particular statistics is undeniable. The Times

Leading articles

Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan are increasingly interrelated

The loss of the 100th British soldier in Iraq would have been no less tragic if that man had been the 101st or 102nd. Death is not simply a matter of numbers. That there is a certain symbolism attached to particular statistics is undeniable. The Prime Minister was, nevertheless, right to caution against “overhyping” this murder and drawing extravagant conclusions. If this is a moment for anything, then, as John Reid commented, it is a time for reflecting on the sacrifice and professionalism displayed by the Armed Forces. It would be surreal to suggest that the case for withdrawing troops from Iraq has been strengthened because an abstract figure for fatalities has been hit.

It is, by contrast, worth analysing why southern Iraq has become a more unpredictable area for the British contingent recently. While the region has, as a rule, been quieter than the areas for which the Americans have military responsibility, violence has ebbed and flowed in a pattern that is hardly random. This part of Iraq is subject to the influence of Iran and it cannot be a coincidence that when relations between Tehran and the outside world are especially tense — usually on the question of its overt nuclear aspirations — the climate in which the British Army in Iraq operates will turn more challenging. The past month has been a strikingly awkward one around Basra.

The blunt reality, therefore, is that this is unlikely to be the last UK military death in Iraq. As the diplomatic shouting match yesterday illustrated, the struggle over Iran’s desire to obtain a nuclear weapons capability will not be settled soon. The Iranian regime is determined to play it long, confident that the rules of the game will change once its possession of an atomic bomb becomes a fait accompli. For that reason, Washington is insisting, correctly, that this matter be delivered to the UN Security Council at maximum speed, and others — notably Russia — should endorse this.

Iraq and Iran, however, are not the only pieces of this increasingly complicated and interrelated jigsaw puzzle. London was yesterday the host to a big international conference on the future of Afghanistan. Although there are, as Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President, accurately outlined, real signs of progress, there is not much doubt that elements of the Taleban and al-Qaeda are seeking to turn the continuing conflict in Iraq to their advantage. Britain will become more deeply committed in Afghanistan soon and that involves the prospect of additional casualties.

To which, some voters here will respond, why invite that danger? Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan are a long distance from these shores and present no obvious immediate threat to British security. Both on the unreconstructed Left and the isolationist Right, the cry of Not in Their Backyard is rising.

It is a fool’s siren. Iraq has become the most significant front in the War on Terror and the best hope for the advance of democracy in a region that desperately needs it. Iran’s determination to put nuclear missiles in the most unreliable of hands is today arguably the principal menace to international order. The folly of regarding Afghanistan as a distant country of scant consequence should surely have been shattered on September 11, 2001. In truth, Mr Blair and Dr Reid would, ideally, not want British troops to be sent to regions in which they operate in grave danger. But to ignore the crucial importance of these states is not an option at this time.

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