The Brit Way

Occupational hazards aren't so intense in southern Iraq, outside the U.S. sphere

 NORTHERN ENGLAND AND SOUTHERN IRAQ—A crowd of angry Iraqis gathered. Opposite it, behind shields, wielding batons, waited British soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment. The mob advanced, hurling flaming Molotov cocktails. Bodies crashed. People fell, flailing. Then referees intervened, pulling apart the combatants.

It was June 10 at Catterick, a British Army base in northern England. The "Iraqis" were actually British soldiers. In every direction there were just cows and farmhouses. It was the furthest thing from Iraq, but it would have to do. In July, the Royal Irish's 500 soldiers were to deploy to Iraq for six months, their second stint since the 2003 invasion. They didn't know it at the time, but this was their last chance to train for what could be the final major rotation of British troops—a memo leaked to The Daily newspaper last week outlined plans to withdraw most U.K. forces by April 2006.

The Royal Irish were being trained to staff two detachments: one at a logistics base in southern Iraq and another in Baghdad. One promised relative quiet. The other guaranteed firefights and bombings.

Familiar territory: Iraqis haven't forgotten Britain's history in their country.
photo: David Axe
Familiar territory: Iraqis haven't forgotten Britain's history in their country.

How the British Army prepares for and executes such disparate missions is testimony to centuries of experience fighting in places like Iraq. And it informs a debate that has raged since 2003 over whether the reputedly softer British approach to occupation is better than the "heavy-handed" American approach. It's a debate that's becoming more relevant as British forces move close to declaring victory and leaving Iraq, while American forces seem likely to remain in the country for years to come.

A balanced view finds more similarities than differences in the two nations' methods. The differences—and the different timelines for their respective forces' withdrawals—stem from the regions the nations occupy: The British have 8,500 troops in the south, while the U.S. has 150,000 in the Sunni triangle, the volatile western desert, and the contested north. In two years, the British have lost 90 soldiers; the U.S., more than 1,700.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was U.S.-led, but Britain has a longer history than the U.S. of meddling in Iraq. The British first occupied the country in 1915, installing an independent monarchy. British troops returned several times to quash revolts. In 1941, revolutionaries courted Germany, prompting Britain to reoccupy Iraq until 1945 and keep bases until 1955. The monarchy was overthrown in 1958 and replaced by increasingly authoritarian regimes that culminated in Saddam Hussein's takeover in 1979.

Iraqis haven't forgotten Britain's history in their country. At a June 7 meeting in Basra between Transport Minister Salam al-Maliki and the British Foreign Office, talk turns to a comparison of British and American methods. "Americans face violence with violence," al-Maliki says. Gazing at the Foreign Office officials, al-Maliki tells them that the British are less aggressive: "You've been here before."

Al-Maliki isn't the only one to perceive a difference. In April 2004, the Telegraph (U.K.) published an anonymous British officer's accusations that Americans killed indiscriminately.

"The Americans' use of violence . . . is over-responsive to the threat they are facing," the newspaper quoted the officer as saying. "They are not concerned about the Iraqi loss of life in the way the British are."

The officer's accusations ignore examples of British heavy-handedness. In 2003, aggressive arrests by British forces in Majar al-Kabir sparked a riot that killed four Iraqis and six British soldiers.

Regardless, the officer's claims gained traction. In April, a House of Commons report concluded, "Excessive use by the U.S. forces of overwhelming firepower has also been counterproductive, provoking antagonism toward the coalition."

The same opinion permeates the British Army. Major Hugo Clark, 35, the officer who orchestrated the Catterick training, acknowledges that the British have an advantage of institutional experience over the Americans. He likens Iraq to Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Still, he says, comparing American behavior in the Sunni triangle to British actions in Shiite southern Iraq is unfair.

After one convoy exercise in Catterick in which five vans substituting for Baghdad traffic surrounded soldiers in Land Rovers, Clark told the soldiers they had seconds to decide whether to fire on the suspicious vehicles. "That's five vehicles," he pointed out to them. "Just think what Baghdad is going to produce. You're beginning to understand the environment the Americans are working in."

It's an environment the Royal Irish would know very well. Major Edward Mason, 37, says that his soldiers will take turns between the Baghdad and southern posts.

"In Baghdad, with the suicide bombing threat, you've got to keep people at arm's length," Clark said. "But in the south, people can be pretty favorable. You don't want to keep them at arm's length."

That's easier said than done. The cultural divide between the insular southern tribes and their British occupiers is as wide as that between the Americans and their subjects up north. Helping soldiers bridge the gap has been one of Clark's goals. His success contradicts centuries of colonial tradition.

With radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr moving toward legitimacy, violent demonstrations are rare in southern Iraq, Mason said. But Clark said British forces must be prepared for the worst—hence, the June 10 "riot exercise," which simulated a worst-case scenario.

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