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.
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.
“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.
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.
Back at Catterick, Major Mason said the Royal Irish sends a third of its troops through a basic Arabic course. He wanted to give his soldiers a more exhaustive language course, but the training schedule hasn’t allowed it. Still, British units land in Iraq able to speak more Arabic than their American counterparts. On patrols like Wiseman’s, such training is evident.
In the Samawah market, Wiseman attracts an entourage of Iraqis—kids begging for candy, men asking about reconstruction. When he leaves, Wiseman waves goodbye, and his subjects wave back.
No gunfire. No riots. In southern Iraq, the occupiers have maintained peace and consent for another day.To say a uniquely British approach is the key to that consent is unfair, when Americans up north who take many of the same measures are rewarded with bloodshed.
While cars explode and people die in central and northern Iraq, the south appears to be moving closer to security, paving the way for the British occupation’s relatively orderly end, beginning perhaps as early as next April.