The Razor’s Edge


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.”

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.

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.

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.”