The Brit Way

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

"We're an army—our job is to apply force," he said. "But . . . you need the ability to apply force selectively."

After all, Clark said, success means winning Iraqis' consent, and in southern Iraq, maybe the key to avoiding the insurgents' roadside bombs. "For instance," noted Clark, "the best detector is the local populace. But they're not going to help you if they don't like you."

In another corner of Catterick, Second Lieutenant Kevin Wild, 20, accompanied by a translator, sat in a room opposite a local Arabic teacher portraying an Iraqi sheikh. Wild greeted the sheikh in Arabic and told him he was there to hear the sheikh's concerns.

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.

Speaking through the translator, the "sheikh" said, "Why isn't your commander here to see me?"

Wild struggled for a response that balanced the truth—that the commander would be too busy to meet every sheikh every day—with the mission: to make nice in a place where the populace is on the brink of revolt. So Wild told him, "He looks forward to meeting you at a later date."

The sheikh nodded. Wild looked relieved.

Balancing combat with the softer skills needed to win over a sometimes hostile populace is a challenge the British Army has faced for centuries, most recently in Northern Ireland. With colonial outposts occupied by small garrisons, at least in some areas, the British often relied on local consent to maintain their empire.

The U.S. military is learning to do the same.

"We rely heavily on town leaders," said Captain Mike Yea, 29, from the U.S. 25th Infantry Division, deployed to the northern town of Qayyarah.

On March 27, Captain Ran Gist, 29, dropped in on Qayyarah's Sheikh Ishmael and, after tea and small talk in Arabic, told him the U.S. needed his help identifying terrorists.

This was exactly the type of scenario that British lieutenant Wild's training simulation anticipated. And it's the cornerstone of American and British strategy across Iraq, both in Qayyarah and in the southern province of Al-Muthanna.

From Camp Smitty, near As Samawah in southern Iraq, 48-year-old colonel Niall Campbell's 500 soldiers patrol the poorest part of the country, protecting a contingent of Japanese engineers building a $150 million power plant.

Decades of neglect by Baghdad's Sunni-dominated government ruined the province's infrastructure—"There ain't a lot of money here," says Campbell—and sowed suspicion in its people. This has been useful for keeping Sunni insurgents out, Campbell says, but it also presents a challenge to the occupiers. How does a Western army overcome Al Muthanna's hostility toward foreigners?

By meeting them on their terms, Campbell says, so he communes regularly with the province's sheikhs and politicians. "You can't be a stranger in Muthanna," says Campbell.

His tactics sound like those described by Lieutenant Bradley Becker, Captain Gist's commander in Qayyarah. Becker has won over even Ahmed Fathi, Qayyarah's Sunni religious leader.

After much diplomacy, Muthanna's leaders are now "embarrassingly friendly" with the British, Campbell says, drawing a gilded blade, a gift from a local leader. It helps, Campbell adds, that people here are "pathetically grateful that Saddam Hussein is gone."

This is the critical difference between the British and U.S. zones, according to Major Clark, the trainer back in Catterick. The Sunni insurgency in the U.S. zone continues unabated, killing more than 50 Americans from late April to late May, while the British lost two soldiers in the same period. "There's just not a Sunni problem" in southern Iraq, says British Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Williams, commander in Maysan province.

Still, British forces have to work hard to gain and maintain local consent. Among those on the front line is Lieutenant Sqot Wiseman, 28. On a June 6 patrol through a Samawah marketplace, armed but without their helmets, Wiseman and his soldiers plunge into a crowd, greeting shoppers in stilted Arabic. Wiseman pauses at a shop to hear 55-year-old Sayid Hessan's gripes about power, water, and occupation. "When will the U.K. leave?" Hessan demands.

Wiseman tells him that foreign forces will leave when Muthanna is self-sufficient—the line Americans recite elsewhere.

Iraqi preparedness is the major condition cited in the withdrawal plans leaked to the Daily Mail. Back at Camp Smitty, Campbell says the coalition will stay until the Iraqi Army gains confidence and major reconstruction projects finish. Again, it's like he's reading the American script, stressing the prerequisites for a 2006 withdrawal. "We're not going to be here forever," he says. "Nor are we in an unseemly rush to leave."

In the meantime, soldiers like Wiseman tread lightly in Muthanna, betraying some of the differences between their tactics and Americans'. Soldiers here patrol in Land Rovers, vehicles much smaller than American Humvees. As a result, says British Army spokesman Captain Muir Sterling, British forces inflict fewer delays on Iraqi commuters and cause fewer accidents. On patrols through markets, British soldiers often remove their helmets to appear friendlier. Americans, patrolling more dangerous areas, rarely do so. But it's hard to say if that really makes a difference to an already hostile Sunni population.

If there's one notable difference between British and U.S. forces in Iraq, it's in their adoption of Arabic. British forces go out of their way to speak some Arabic, even if badly. U.S. troops are less likely to even try.

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