US-Brit backslapping or backbiting?

For the past six months, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have been trumpeting to the world their shoulder-to-shoulder stance on Iraq.

"Our two countries are joined in large tasks because we share fundamental convictions," said a typically obtuse Mr. Bush in April. Mr. Blair has taken on his antiwar critics in Britain by insisting: "I believe in this British-American alliance ... and I will fight long and hard to maintain it."

Blair is expected to arrive in the US Thursday to meet with the president, so it seems that their "special friendship" has even survived the transatlantic spat over the prewar evidence of weapons of mass destruction.

How nice - except for one thing. This friendship has been in short supply on the ground in Iraq.

While political leaders talk about standing shoulder to shoulder, their forces in Iraq have barely been able to see eye to eye. Instead, British and American troops have bickered over everything from friendly fire to war crimes. How come?

The myth of Britain and America's friendship was shattered in the early days of the war, by British troops' angry response to friendly fire. In earlier wars, death and injury by friendly fire were largely seen as a tragic, but unavoidable, part of modern warfare. This time, when Americans killed three Britons at the end of March, British troops cited it as evidence of America's blind arrogance.

"He had absolutely no regard for human life," said British Lance Cpl. Steven Gerrard in March, of the US fighter pilot who fired on his armored vehicle. "I think [the Americans] are just ignorant," said British squaddie Chris Finney. British Lt. Alex MacEwen told The Times of London that his family had been right when they had warned him: "Don't worry about the Iraqis, it's the Americans you want to watch."

Then came the war crimes accusations. In mid-May, US Maj. Re Biastre accused British Lt. Col. Tim Collins of pistol-whipping an Iraqi civic leader and kicking POWs. It later transpired that Major Biastre was bitter after Colonel Collins had apparently bossed him around during the war. But the accusations were enough to "breed tension," as The Salt Lake Tribune put it, between the US and Britain.

British commentators responded by questioning the cheek of Americans talking about war crimes, "when dozens, if not hundreds, of Iraqi civilians were killed for simply driving their cars in relative proximity of US forces."

Now, the "allies" clash over which side is doing a better job in postwar Iraq. In May, a British source told the Guardian that where British forces had made a success of Basra, US forces were messing up in Baghdad: "In the capital the US forces have not adopted the mingling profile with the populace that has been a success in other cities."

American sources have said that "peacekeeping is for wimps," in what some interpret as a sly aside against the beret-wearing Brits.

This argument reached its ugliest when six British military policemen were killed in Majar al-Kabir at the end of June. Some in the British camp blamed America, arguing that Washington's ineptitude had made Iraq an increasingly dangerous place. Under the headline "Brits have paid price for poor US strategy" in The Daily Mirror, Sir Tim Garden, former British assistant chief of the defense, said: "Using hard military firepower to keep the peace, as the USA seems to, is likely to be counterproductive.... The US leadership in Iraq has not been very clever."

What kind of "special friends" argue so publicly in the heat of war? What sort of "coalition" uses the highly charged language of war crimes to score points against its own side?

The disparity between Bush and Blair's "joint commitment" over Iraq and the spats on the ground captures an essential truth of the Iraqi war - it looked good on paper, but the reality has been a lot uglier and more complicated.

It is one thing for Bush and Blair to conjure up solidarity on the White House lawn, in a smiling "coalition of the willing" for the assembled press and photographers. But solidarity on the battlefield is a different matter. Soldiers need more than words and handshakes in order to feel united. In the midst of war, they need aims and goals, missions and time scales, to build wartime trust, friendship, and solidarity. Yet these things have been missing in the confused mess that is postwar Iraq - leaving coalition troops in disarray, squabbling like schoolchildren over who messed up most.

As Bush and Blair continue to backslap at home, their troops are likely to continue backbiting in Iraq.

Brendan O'Neill is assistant editor of

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