As occupiers, Brits bring experience
Years of global policing have made soldiers all-rounders
BASRA, IRAQ — 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.
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."
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.
"We are trying to send out a specific signal," says McCourt. "We are not into aggressive heavy handedness. We want to look the population in the eye and convey: 'We trust you - now you trust us.' We are only here as an interim group and waiting to pass authority onward. We don't want to make ourselves hated."
British soldiers have also done away with the makeshift barbed-wire fencing with which the Americans surround their positions and checkpoints, preferring to use materials from the area. Painting such war cries such as "Kill 'em all," or "Destroyer," on the tank turrets - as is sometimes done on the American side - is prohibited.
And while both the British and the Americans have begun the long process of rehiring and retraining members of the local police forces, the British are already taking them along on patrols. In Baghdad, though most of the 8,200-man Iraqi police force is back to work, according to the Associated Press, and the US has provided them pistols, American troops themselves have taken the most visible policing role thus far.
British soldiers are better trained than their American counterparts in basic civil affairs, which for the US is still a specialty. So the British can more easily transition to peacekeeping and reconstruction.
Still, building a civil administration is not easy, admit both the US and British, and mistakes are being made all over. For example, the British erred recently when they appointed a local tribal leader and retired Iraqi general, Sheik Muzahim Kanan al-Tamimi, as head of an interim advisory council in Basra. The population soon began demonstrating, arguing that the man was a prominent Baathist and forcing the British to backpeddle and appoint someone else.
Nights in Basra are still punctuated by gunfire, crime is up, electricity is unreliable, and earlier this month, a suspected cholera outbreak put 17 people in the hospital. And like the Americans in Baghdad, the British, too, have had trouble distinguishing the good guys from the bad.
"They are very well meaning, but they don't know who is who," says Mohammad Nasser, selling posters on a Basra bridge. "Sometimes they go to arrest a thief, and that thief answers the door and points them in a different direction," he sighs. "It will take time ... but they are good boys."
Despite the Americans' desire to win hearts and minds in Iraq, much of their recent urban military experience was formed by Mogadishu, Somalia, where 17 Army Rangers were killed and some paraded through the streets.
This has left US rules of engagement less flexible. The US Force Protection Doctrine decrees that all soldiers must wear helmets and body armor in a war zone at all times, and that gunfire must be met with response. So it happened last month that when shooting broke out in Fallujah, a small town 30 miles west of Baghdad, over a dispute in a school, US soldiers ended up shooting 15 civilians.
"Our soldier is our No. 1 asset, and we want to ensure his or her security above all," explains Lt. Col. Tony Healy, a spokesman for the US 354 Civil Affairs Brigade. "We say, 'When in doubt - when you feel yourself threatened - react. Don't wait.' Is there anything wrong with that?"
The Americans dismiss the unflattering comparisons, and note that the British can be just as tough as US forces. The British, they say, came into Basra - as they have into other conflicts - with brute force. It was this, and not the light touch that followed the combat, that enabled them to quiet the place.
"I understand the Brits," says Staff Sgt. Antony Joseph, a US Army spokesman who lived in England for 21 years. "They go in - Crash! Bang! Wallop! That's their style. We do it softly, softly - but carefully - all along because we don't want to upset people or get killed ourselves. It's a different kind of war and a different kind of peace."