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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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.
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."