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As occupiers, Brits bring experience

Years of global policing have made soldiers all-rounders

By Danna HarmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 20, 2003


British Capt. Justin Prowse arrived near Basra in mid-March with his Black Watch infantry regiment and began winding his way into Iraq's second-largest city. Fighting on the bridges was intense, and there were casualties on both sides.

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After days of heavy bombing and targeted strikes, the regiment finally took the southern city on Mar. 28. But just 24 hours later, Prowse was busy with a different battle.

"Just because I shoot at people doesn't mean I can't help unblock a water pipe," says the captain cheerfully. After the city fell, chaos reigned briefly. But British troops quickly moved to guarding hospitals, distributing water, and restoring electricity, eliciting smiles from the locals along the way.

While some problems remain, less than two months later, the city is returning to some sort of normal. Normal enough, British soldiers say, that US troops sitting amid the ongoing lawlessness in Baghdad might look to them for a lesson or two.

While parents in Baghdad are still afraid to send their children to school and many shops have yet to reopen, in Basra men banter in corner cafes, women shop while trundling around with their children, and the city's famous ice-cream parlors do a brisk business.

"I think we have done a good job here, to be honest," assesses Prowse, slapping a skinny private on the back.

To be sure, Basra is much smaller and less populated than Baghdad. Its Shiite population, long oppressed by Saddam Hussein's regime, was always more likely to be sympathetic to the foreign troops, and the infrastructure here was not as devastated in the fighting or its aftermath. All these factors go a long way toward explaining the difference in mood between the two cities today. But they do not explain it all.

"We came here with the Americans to liberate the Iraqi people and find the elusive weapons of mass destruction...." says Lt. Col. Ronnie McCourt, a spokesman for the British troops in Basra. "But now that we are in the peace-building phase, we are seeing some divergence."

For example, the British hand out candies to Iraqi children, notes Pvt. James Patterson, speaking with a broad Scottish accent. "We kick a football around with 'em, too - no time for a full game, but we try. The Americans are too nervous for that," he adds.

"Today's modern soldier has to be an all arounder," pipes in his mate, Sgt. Collin Steward. "Nay, its not easy going from fighting to being pals and fixing their sewage drains. But we are professional soldiers. We are trained for every inevitability and we do this better than the Americans. Experience, it is."

Peacekeeping pays off

Experience explains much of the relative success of the British in bringing a semblance of order to southern Iraq. They have the traditions and ethos that come with years of peacekeeping in which small numbers of men have close contact on a daily basis with local populations in places like the Balkans, Sierra Leone, and, most significantly, Northern Ireland.

"The Irish helped us develop into the best urban peacekeeping force in the world," says Colonel McCourt. "We made a lot of mistakes there over the years and learned from them."

They learned, for one, that working with and earning the respect and trust of citizens is crucial. In Basra, the 7,000-odd British have done away with helmets and combat body gear and patrol the cities in berets, their guns lowered in an attempt to foster trust.

Troops here get briefed on Arab cultural differences, learning not to be rattled, for example, by the more limited sense of personal space in this part of the world - which sometimes can feel claustrophobic or dangerous to a stranger - and not to look women in the eye at first. American soldiers are also briefed on working in a Muslim-Arab culture, though it is often less comprehensive.