Allies split over battle for hearts and minds
April 2 2003
Cracks are appearing between British and American commanders that have serious implications for operations in Iraq.
Senior British military officers are dismayed by what they see as the failure of US troops to try to fight the battle for hearts and minds. They are also appalled by reports that US marines killed Iraqi civilians, including women and children, as they seized bridges outside Nasiriyah in southern Iraq.
“You can see why the Iraqis are not welcoming us with open arms,” a senior British defence source said on Monday.
General Sir Mike Jackson, the head of the army, drove home the point at a press conference in London on Friday. “We have a very considerable hearts and minds challenge,” he said. “We are not interested in gratuitous violence.”
British and American troops “must convince the Iraqis of their good intentions”, echoed British Armed Forces Minister Adam Ingram. It was not clear whether he was referring to any particular incident.
British officers have described the very different approach between UK and US soldiers by pointing to Umm Qasr, the Iraqi port south of Basra and the first urban area captured by US and British marines. “Unlike the Americans, we took our helmets and sunglasses off and looked at the Iraqis eye to eye,” a British officer said.
While British soldiers “get out on their feet”, Americans, he said, were reluctant to leave their armoured vehicles. When they did – and this was the experience even in Umm Qasr – US marines were ordered to wear their full combat kit.
One difference emphasised by senior British military sources was the attitude towards “force protection”. A British defence source added: “The Americans put on more and more armour and firepower. The British go light and go on the ground.”
British defence sources contrast the patient tactics of their troops around Basra and what they call the more brutal tactics of American forces around Nasiriyah. US marines there appeared to have fired indiscriminately, with orders to shoot at civilian vehicles.
Unlike their American counterparts, British commanders have said they will not change their tactics following the suicide bombing attack last week on a group of US marines in Nasiriyah.
The British military put the difference in approach down to decades of training as well as experience, first in insurgencies in Malaya, then in Northern Ireland and peacekeeping operations in the Balkans.
Sir Roger Wheeler, former head of the army, points to the “experience, awareness, and skill”, particularly important among non-commissioned officers such as corporals and sergeants.
What is striking is the emphasis British military figures put on the differences between their approach and that of the Americans on the ground. They have gone out of their way to draw attention to nervous, “trigger-happy” US soldiers.
US marines in Nasiriyah have said they had asked British troops for instructions on urban warfare. They began using new tactics in operations around the town yesterday when they started searching suburbs block by block.
British military sources are now concerned that the experience in peacekeeping and unconventional warfare of British troops will mean they will be in Iraq long after the Americans have left, even for years, in policing and humanitarian operations.
The concern among military chiefs is that the experience will mean the US will want to get out of places even quicker, leaving the British and others to continue fighting the battle for hearts and minds.
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