WASHINGTON, D.C.—A British soldier in the south of Iraq earlier in the week compared Basra to Northern Ireland, where the British fought a war against a tiny enemy for 30 years and still couldn’t win.
The comparisons are intriguing. The appearance of the Saddam Fedayeen may well be early manifestations of what could turn out to be a lengthy guerrilla war. “The enemy we’re fighting is different from the one we’d war-gamed against,” Lt. General William S. Wallace, the army ground commander in Iraq, told the Washington Post. It’s hard to believe that Saddam hasn’t used the last decade to build up stockpiles of ammunition and weapons and stash them throughout the country. That, after all, is what the British did all
over England in the early days of World War II, when an attack by the Nazis was real enough. They prepared themselves for irregular, guerrilla warfare, though in the end it wasn’t necessary.
In Northern Ireland the British government poured thousands of troops to maintain control. At the height of occupation in 1972, the British had some 30,000 troops stationed in a country of 1.5 million people. That’s one soldier for every 50 people. Still, they couldn’t win.
Since that time up to the recent past, contingents of British soldiers numbering anywhere from 15,000 to 25,000 were stationed there. They hung
out in small fortresses within city centers, their every move noted and tracked by IRA partisans, from school boys to housewives to grannies, who passed the word for an ambush.
The British troop were confronted not by thousands of guerrilla warriors of the sort Saddam can muster, but by perhaps 800 to 900 active IRA members. The IRA waged a twin campaign, bombing commercial targets in cities such as Belfast and Derry, while using ambushes and booby traps to kill British soldiers. They were so successful with this sort of fighting, that the British were virtually driven off the streets in parts of Northern Ireland. They took to the air to patrol and controlled the countryside. The IRA went to Libya in what turned out to be a botched trip to import Sam7s to take out British air superiority.
Then, in the last decade, the IRA launched an attack against London, virtually halting all work in the city’s financial heart. When British defensive tactics drove them out, the IRA prepared to employ homemade mortars hidden in the backs of vehicles to attack Heathrow airport. Such
attacks never materialized, although the IRA shot off a few blank mortars that landed in the middle of the airport complex-just to show what it could do.
Saddam is in a far superior position. He is head of a government that presumably has been importing and making arms for years. Where the IRA faced grave difficulties in importing arms into an island colony,
Saddam is surrounded by friends in the Arab world. The more the allied invasion is seen as an attack on Iraq as a nation, the more friends he will have. The U.S. thinks of him as a vicious dictator, and the Bush
government would like to stop him from becoming a martyr. But if guerrilla warfare takes hold, Saddam can transform himself into a nationalist desert hero.
As Ed Maloney, the journalist and author of A Secret History of the IRA, puts it, “Iraq could well turn out to be a nest of vipers.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 1, 2003