The Razor's Edge

In relatively calm southern Iraq, people chafe under the occupation

 MAYSAN PROVINCE, IRAQ—On May 31, a patrol of armored Land Rovers from the British Army's King's Royal Hussars regiment moves through hot dusty Maysan province in southern Iraq. In one of the trucks is a 21-year-old soldier from the northeast England town of Goole named Alan Brackenbury, who just two months earlier won a hard-earned promotion to corporal. On the yellow outskirts of the town of Al Amarah, a bomb explodes beside Brackenbury's Land Rover, grievously injuring him and four others. A helicopter from Brackenbury's base at Camp Abu Naji darts to the scene in hopes of carrying the young man to a hospital and saving his life, but it's too late. Brackenbury dies in the desert, making him the 88th Briton killed in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.

At Abu Naji, a grim mood gets only grimmer. On May 2, another soldier from the base, 24-year-old Guardsman Anthony Wakefield, died the same way: blown to bits by a roadside bomb only miles from camp.

"Two of my soldiers have been killed in six weeks," says Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Williams, 43, the senior British commander at Abu Naji, which is home to around 1,000 soldiers. "To you Americans, that's nothing. But in the previous six months, not one British soldier was killed here. The security situation is worse than it was two, three months ago."

Iraqi police captain Mohammed Radke and aide with Sgt. Gary Howe.
photo: David Axe
Iraqi police captain Mohammed Radke and aide with Sgt. Gary Howe.

Williams's assessment comes at a time when the Iraqi insurgency seems to be gaining in strength and reach.

On May 30, Vice President Dick Cheney said that the war in Iraq would be won by 2009, confirming what many skeptics have long believed. No matter that Cheney later described the insurgency as being in its "last throes." The conflict is far from over, and despite some qualified successes such as the January elections, the fight against the insurgency is not going as well as the Bush administration says. That the violence has shattered even the relative peace and quiet of Al Amarah is perhaps proof that the insurgency has only spread.

And it has Williams reconsidering the coalition presence here.

On June 2, still reeling from Brackenbury's death, Williams tells two visiting reporters that much of the violence in the province targets foreign soldiers. He openly speculates that in Maysan, the coalition ("multinational forces," or MNF, in militaryspeak) perhaps causes more violence than it prevents.

Ironically and despite the recent attacks, "southern Iraq is more stable and secure than the north," Williams says. Thirty years of neglect and repression of southern Shia provinces by the Sunni Baath government in Baghdad have made people here tough, self-reliant, and wary of outsiders. As a result, Williams says, "Maysan does not have a Sunni problem." The insurgency here is a different animal than the insurgency in Baghdad and the Sunni triangle, which has well-financed former-regime types, Zarqawist madmen, and the occasional jihadist heaven-bent on blowing himself up at a police station. Based on local sentiment in Al Amarah, Maysan's insurgency seems less like the apocalyptic death throes of a tyrannical former regime than a violent grassroots protest against foreign occupation.

On June 2, 36-year-old Falah Hassan Qathen rushes outside with an escort of grubby children to confront U.K. Sergeant Gary Howe and his men from the Coldstream Guards Regiment as they patrol Al Amarah's dirty streets. Qathen says he is unemployed, then sounds the Maysan refrain: "The water is very dirty. The electricity is very bad. There are no jobs." He tells Howe, 32, that contractors are stealing money and complains that Iraqi leaders don't do anything without U.S. approval.

As Howe and his soldiers pull away, the kids pelt the Land Rovers with rocks.

Williams says that Iraqis in Maysan tolerate the coalition only as long as the coalition contributes something. He says the foreign presence balances on a "razor's edge of consent."

In May, Williams's forces briefly tipped over that edge. It started with a May 5 raid by troops from Abu Naji "aimed at striking at the heart of terrorists in Maysan," in Williams's words. "We got one seriously bad guy."

During the raid, Williams stationed Warrior armored vehicles on the outskirts of town to protect his lightly armed troops. Locals bristled at the sight of the massive, intimidating vehicles.

Williams knew the Warriors would cause a stir. "Immediately [after the raid]," he says, "I phoned the governor to say sorry and to explain." But it was too late. Riding a wave of public furor, the governor issued an order to the province to "stop all coordination and cooperation with multinational forces in both security and reconstruction."

Although Williams has managed to persuade the governor to rescind his order by promising to keep Warriors out of town, local authorities remain hesitant to assist the coalition. Back in Al Amarah on June 2, Howe drops into a police station to ask Captain Mohammed Radke to help him identify suspected insurgents in the area. Radke says he knows of some, but declines to give details.

Howe presses. Belatedly, Radke volunteers a vague description of the insurgents' car. Howe, growing annoyed, presses further. Radke says the car is a white Toyota. Howe, well aware of the large number of white Toyotas in Al Amarah, rolls his eyes and moves on to the next issue: Someone's been shooting mortars at Abu Naji, and he wants to know who—and from where.

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