Dutch take a 'slowly' tact in Iraq

In the Shiite south, Dutch troops let Iraqi police take the lead in raids, and use 'snitch lines' to keep tabs on Hussein loyalists.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

While US troops face a guerrilla war that coalition officials fear will continue despite Saddam Hussein's capture, in the less-volatile south, a battalion of Dutch marines is employing softer tactics to prevent resistance from forming.

Not one attack against coalition forces has been reported in Muthanna, the second-largest of Iraq's 17 provinces, since the end of the war in April. Samawa, the capital of Muthanna, is the only place in Iraq outside the American-friendly Kurdish area in the far north where coalition officials can wander the streets in safety.

To be sure, it's not the hotbed of Hussein loyalty like the areas in and around Baghdad, where most attacks against coalition forces have occurred. Still, despite growing discontent at the slow pace of reconstruction, Muthanna is a rare security success in a country beset with an insurgency that shows little sign of abating.

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"It's all about respect. Respect for the locals and other cultures and their values," says Lt. Col. Richard Oppelaar, the Dutch commander. "If you don't grab the culture, you won't grab the problem."

The Dutch "softly softly" approach to security in Muthanna comes in marked contrast to the more robust anti-insurgency measures farther north. "The only way you win in combat is to stay on the offensive," Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the US military commander in Iraq, said recently.

American military officials say that the tougher stance toward the militants has helped reduce anticoalition attacks by as much as a half. Their tactics include sealing off towns with razor wire, bulldozing the houses of suspected militants, making mass arrests, and using heavy firepower. Critics say popular resentment against the occupation increases with each new raid, fueling support for the militants.

There are important differences between the Shiite Muthanna province and the mainly Sunni areas controlled by US troops, where sympathy for Hussein still lingers.

The Shiites here were brutally repressed by Hussein's regime and welcomed the coalition forces as liberators.

That initial enthusiasm has waned as the local population struggles with high unemployment, a weak economy, and lack of basic food supplies and fuel. But for the Dutch, maintaining the initial goodwill is the key to ensuring continued stability. When searching a suspected militant's home, for example, the Dutch troops hang back, allowing the local police to conduct the operation.

"If the information we have proves wrong, we return the next day to say sorry and hand them a food parcel," says Michel Rentenaar, the battalion's civilian political adviser. While US troops also conduct follow-ups after some military operations, in the minds of residents in the Sunni triangle north and west of Baghdad, the goodwill effort is often overshadowed.

Getting closer to the people

The Dutch are part of a Polish-led multinational division operating in southern Iraq. Although the bulk of anticoalition attacks occur in the Sunni triangle, the south remains dangerous. The Spanish Plus-Ultra component in Diwaniyah, 50 miles north of Samawa, regularly comes under mortar fire. Last month, 18 Italian soldiers were killed in a suicide bomb attack against their headquarters in Nasiriyah.

"If we have a higher threat, we get closer to the local people. If we didn't, we wouldn't get good intelligence," says Colonel Oppelaar. "If we are far from them, then they are open to outside influences."

The three "snitch lines" operated by the Dutch are always "red hot," says Mr. Rentenaar. "If a truck driver from Fallujah [a pro-Hussein town in the Sunni triangle] checks into a hotel, the phone rings immediately."

Analysts have long warned of the importance of keeping the traditionally well-organized Shiites on board as the country moves toward full sovereignty. The emergence of a Shiite resistance would be the death knell of coalition efforts to forge a stable post-Hussein Iraq.

But despite the Dutch emphasis on "hearts and minds," there are growing signs here that patience for the occupation is wearing thin. "The situation is not good," says Musa Hassoun, sipping a tiny glass of strong sweet tea at a roadside cafe. "No one has any work, there's no drinking water, no gas for our cars, no propane to cook with, there are always power cuts and not enough flour, sugar and tea."

It is a familiar complaint to the coalition authorities.

"They have unrealistic expectations on what we can do for the economy," says a foreign official. "Our target for electricity was to achieve prewar level plus 20 percent. We achieved that very quickly because it was so bad before. So they have 22 hours of electricity a day, but now they are complaining about the extra two hours."

The powerful clergy, in particular, Sayyed Ali Sistani, the dominant Shiite cleric, has kept anticoalition resentment in check so far.

"The Islamic clerics have a strong spiritual control over people," says Sheikh Kardom al-Awadi, a local representative of the militant firebrand cleric Sheikh Muqtada Sadr. "If the people are released, there is no one that can stop them."

All it would take is one word from Sayyed Sistani, says Satar Jaber, "and we would rise up."

Burning bicycles

With these sentiments openly expressed on the streets of Samawa, the Dutch effort to maintain goodwill becomes crucial. Yet their biggest security headache is the potential backlash from residents angry at the lengthy convoys of supply trucks that thunder though Samawa, creating traffic jams and accidents. The convoys are guarded by American soldiers hunched over machine guns atop Humvees.

"The American troops pass through our town acting as if it's their own country," says Jassem Hassan. "They cause accidents and drive away. We don't like them pointing their weapons at us and driving fast through the town."

The different approaches of the Dutch and American forces were demonstrated a few miles north of Samawa on the main road to Baghdad. American soldiers had set fire to a container truck packed with potato chips and fresh meat that had been abandoned after sliding off the narrow, muddy road. "It was being looted by locals," a soldier said. "We always burn trucks that break down to prevent their contents being stolen."

Two soldiers picked up some bicycles lying on the side of the road and threw them into the back of the burning truck. A group of Iraqis squatted in the middle of a field, silently watching. "The looters were using the bicycles," one soldier said. "They ran away when we arrived, so we are burning the bikes to teach them a lesson. Maybe next time they will learn to be more honest."

The Iraqis made their thoughts known moments later with a burst of machine gun from the far side of the field. The soldiers climbed back into their vehicles and sped away.

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