Why US getting a wary welcome

As US forces fight in southern Iraq, the shifting loyalties of civilians could be key.

Through the fog of war in Iraq, one conclusion is emerging. The "rose petal and rice" scenario, under which Washington optimists envisaged a warm and immediate welcome for US and British troops, was mistaken.

Reporters with combat troops have recounted scenes of happy Iraqi civilians fraternizing with the soldiers. But they have also broadcast TV pictures of sullen groups of men and neutral bystanders. And paramilitary Iraqi "fedayeen," as well as regular troops, are putting up considerable resistance.

Whether ordinary Iraqis turn out to be grateful for liberation or resentful at invasion will be crucial both to the success of the military campaign now under way, and to longer- term American plans for the country they hope to capture. But it may be too early to draw conclusions about which sentiment - patriotic pride, fear, or hatred of President Hussein - runs deepest in Iraqi hearts.

"You cannot expect ordinary Iraqi people who have lived for years under the boot of Saddam, and who have ... before been let down, I am afraid, by allied forces, to be confident they are able to come out and express their views until they are sure that Saddam's regime has gone," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Tuesday, remarking on the lack of Stars and Stripes-waving crowds in Umm Qasr.

Fighting for hearts and minds

"The fear factor is major," agrees Richard Murphy, a former US assistant secretary of State for the Near East who now works at the Council on Foreign Relations. "But I wonder whether ... the desire to to defend God and country by shooting up the invaders has more appeal than we have given it credit for."

Wednesday, US soldiers escorted a seven-truck convoy of Kuwaiti-donated food and water into Umm Qasr, in the sort of gesture expected to win hearts and minds among a war-stricken population. A British Navy ship was expected to dock in Umm Qasr's deepwater port on Thursday, bringing the first seaborne aid to Iraq.

US military commanders could also find succor in reports of a popular uprising against Hussein's regime that British intelligence suggested had broken out in the southern city of Basra on Tuesday. But an Al Jazeera TV correspondent in the city reported no sign of a rebellion Wednesday.

Shiite Muslims who rose up in revolt in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War were brutally repressed by government forces when coalition troops stood aside after President Bush encouraged Iraqis to "take matters into their own hands."

That experience, seen as a betrayal, "has left deep scars" on local residents, says Cliff Beal, editor of Jane's Defence Weekly.

Both in southern Iraq and elsewhere, "there will be a strong element of prudence among a large part of the population," predicts Charles Tripp, a historian of Iraq at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

"If you combine the feeling among much of the opposition that this is an American and British show with the understandable caution of people after 35 years of Baathist dictatorship - these are huge inhibitors," Dr. Tripp adds.

That is especially true when even towns that the allied troops claim to have secured turn out to have been seeded with irregular fedayeen militiamen, who are beginning to fight a guerrilla war, often dressed in civilian clothes.

This will complicate the military campaign, predicts Mr. Beal. "If you don't know who's who, if you cannot trust the civilian population, you have to devote more resources to keeping an eye on them."

The risks could also sour relations between civilians and invading troops, which Washington and London are eager to keep friendly. "If your mate has just been shot by someone looking very like the man coming down the road, you are not likely to give him a courteous reception," Tripp points out.

The picture would be further muddied should Iraqi tribesmen, many of whom have been armed by the government, join the battle. Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf said Wednesday that "tens of thousands" of such tribesmen had turned back a US military column south of Najaf.

Should fedayeen and other Iraqi troops continue to hole up in towns and cities, as they are expected to do, US and British forces - anxious to avoid civilian casualties so as not to underline their desired image as liberators - will face a cruel dilemma.

"I don't envy a commander having to decide whether to ratchet up firepower," says Beal. "If you don't apply firepower effectively, you risk not accomplishing your objectives and increasing the danger to your own troops. And a commander's No. 1 responsibility is to his objectives and his men."

If allied forces feel obliged to launch all-out offensives against cities such as Baghdad, ordinary Iraqis will simply keep their heads down, says Tripp. "I don't think they will rise up unless an [Iraqi] officer shows the lead. Why risk your life now if the allies are there in such force?"

At the same time, those Iraqis putting up resistance are presumably fueling their morale with Hussein's confident televised addresses, giving the sense that he and his government are still in control. (Iraqi TV came back on the air Wednesday morning, several hours after its transmission tower in Baghdad had been bombed.)

"There is a nationalistic element underlying this," says Beal. "Some of these men are fighting for their hometowns, and government propaganda says the Americans are coming to take their homes and dishonor their women."

Though this applies to members of the ruling Baath party, the militia and the army, most Iraqis are expected to judge the incoming forces by their experiences during and after the fighting.

'Suspicions are high'

"A significant number" of Iraqis "expressed the view that if ... change required an American attack, they would support it," found a recent report by the International Crisis Group think tank in Brussels, based on extensive interviews with ordinary people in Iraq last October.

However, "if the war proved to be bloody or protracted, or if Iraq lacked sufficient assistance afterwards, the support in question may well not be very long sustained," it warned.

This "underlines the need for us to be absolutely committed to what we have talked about, getting an interim Iraqi administration launched as soon as possible and building to a constituent assembly," says Mr. Murphy. "There must be no question who is running Iraq."

That will be difficult, he warns, because "suspicions are high, and we can easily give the impression that we are there to stay."

If that happens, predicts Said Aburish, a Palestinian author who has written a biography of Hussein, "there will be two months of love and affection, and then people will turn around and ask 'What are you doing here?' "

The current uncertainties over Iraqi citizens' response to the invasion "may all blow away like a bad dream," says Murphy.

"But," he adds, "I am not sure that we have paid enough attention to the fact that there is nationalist sentiment that has to be respected."

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