The Razor's Edge

In relatively calm southern Iraq, people chafe under the occupation

Radke nods. He says he knows a mechanic who witnessed the mortars firing.

"Where?" Howe says.

Radke chatters away in the loping circuitous manner to which Arabic is well-suited. Howe's translator looks confused.

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.

Howe says again, "Where?" The chief equivocates. It's the same old shtick—and it's starting to get old.

Leaving the station, Howe is confronted by a young man claiming to be the brother of another man injured in a car accident caused by British troops. "They just drove off," the man says in perfect English. Howe takes his name and number and promises to investigate.

Howe and his troops head back to Abu Naji. Watching out the window of his Land Rover at the dirty yellow countryside trundling by, Howe is visibly frustrated.

He's not alone. "Frustrated" is exactly how Williams describes the people of Maysan province.

Qathen's gripe—the slow pace of reconstruction—is a major reason. Williams says the $140 million the coalition has invested in Maysan is a "drop in the ocean" in light of the province's needs. "There's been no investment for the last 30 years."

Ray Yeates, a manager with Mott MacDonald, a U.K.-based engineering firm that oversees water and electricity projects in southern Iraq, says infrastructure in the region needs replacement rather than "quick patches," meaning billions of dollars worth of new power plants and water-treatment facilities before residents see lasting improvement. But the money just isn't there.

After two years of occupation with little apparent progress in fixing the water and power, locals' patience is exhausted; they're tipping away from consent—perhaps this time for good. Williams says the attacks on his soldiers may be the work of a small group of residents who've decided that the occupiers have had their chance to prove their worth and have failed; now it's time for them to go.

"If you were to take away the MNF from Maysan, would there be less violence?" Williams asks. "Less violence against the MNF, yes." It's the violence against foreign forces that is out of the ordinary for Maysan and that causes hand-wringing in London, Washington, and the U.N.—and in the offices of non-profits worldwide that are notable in Maysan only for their absence. Otherwise, "violence in Maysan province is a way of life," Williams says, citing the recent (and perhaps tribal-motivated) murders of two Iraqi policemen in the province. No foreign army is going to make people here stop killing each other. They may only get themselves killed too.

You can't have an insurgency without an occupier to fight. And if you justify your occupation as an effort to combat insurgency, then you're chasing your own tail. Williams calls it a "chicken and egg thing." Many Americans apparently believe that the occupation of Iraq is part of some greater conflict, be it a clash of civilizations or a global war on terrorism. But for the British, who've occupied Iraq before, Iraq is less a crusade than another in a long string of costly efforts to prop up the shambling nations of the world. "The American military is at war," Williams says. "We're not. We're on operations. The British people do not believe we are at war. Americans do."

Matthew Stuart Ines, the British consul general in Basra, says a stable Iraq is good for trade and world peace, but he makes no mention of any war on terrorism. Without the war on terror to justify perpetual violence and limitless sacrifice, the British might be nearing the point where they must ask themselves whether the occupation of Iraq is worth more lives like Brackenbury's.

Williams says the nearly 1 million residents of Maysan are eager to rule their own province—as well they should be. "This is an Iraqi problem," he says. "And Iraq has to take responsibility for it." The critical question, he adds, is whether they can provide their own security. Sitting in his office at Abu Naji with the two reporters, he thinks about it for a moment, then says, "In three or four months, we could withdraw from Maysan province. [Of course], we're not going anywhere unless it's agreed upon by the Iraqi government."

It's like he's dropped a stun grenade in the room. Noting the reporters' gaping jaws and wide eyes, Williams says he's surprised that they're surprised. "The Iraqis clearly don't want foreign forces here forever," says Williams. "And you've got to start the snowball somewhere."

And he says Maysan—cranky, suspicious, impoverished, Shia Maysan—is that place.

Over the next week, across the four southern provinces occupied by U.K. forces, the reaction to Williams's admission is quick and definitive. In Basra Province, Brigadier Chris Hughes criticizes reporters for placing what he thinks is undue emphasis on the idle speculation of a verbose colonel. In Al Muthanna Province, Colonel Niall Campbell stresses that his training program for local native forces will last well into next year. And at the headquarters for all deployed U.K. forces at Northwood, near London, Major David Steel assures the press that the U.K. will be in Iraq for the long term.

But in the streets and markets of southern Iraq's dusty impoverished towns, angry men like Qathen, recalcitrant cops like Radke, and grassroots insurgents like those who slew Corporal Brackenbury seem to be thinking, "Not if we have anything to say about it."

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