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Britain, America begin to diverge in Iraq

After more than a year of almost seamless coordination between the United States and Britain in Iraq,  cracks are beginning to appear.  Brave New World.
A British soldier is greeted by Basra residents while on patrol in late March.
A British soldier is greeted by Basra residents while on patrol in late March.Antonio Scorza / AFP - Getty Images file

After more than a year of seemingly seamless coordination between the United States and Britain in Iraq, cracks are beginning to appear in both the strategic political goals of the Anglo-American alliance and over tactical military questions.

With battles between American forces and Iraqi insurgents raging around the Sunni city of Fallujah and the Shiite city of Najaf, senior British officers, politicians and former diplomats have grown bolder in their criticism of American tactics, criticized as heavy-handed and prone to alienating potential allies among the Iraqis.

At the same time, Prime Minister Tony Blair finds himself increasingly isolated from his Labor Party, from the British diplomatic service and public opinion over Middle East policy in general and Iraq in particular. As framed in an open letter Tuesday by 52 former British diplomats, including many who supported Blair in the past, Britain for too long remained silent as "heavy weapons unsuited to the task in hand, inflammatory language, the current confrontations in Najaf and Fallujah, all these have built up rather than isolated the [Iraqi] opposition."

Senior military commanders, too, acknowledge doubts.

"On this question of coalition multinationality, yes, it brings great political advantage,” the British military’s chief of staff, Gen. Sir Mike Jackson, told a parliamentary committee last week when asked about doctrinal differences. “It also brings great military friction."

Boys will be boys?
The general's comments did not make much of a splash in the United States, and American officials continue to say that the relationship is rock solid. And officers on both sides also note that disputes between commanders in multinational operations are to be expected. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, American commanders fought off British and French demands that the Yanks be integrated into their national armies as ready replacements for fallen European soldiers. In the next war, the rivalry between the British army's cautious Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and his more aggressive American counterparts is legendary. (Indeed, even Churchill seemed to understand how difficult he could be, calling "Monty": "Indomitable in retreat, invincible in advance, insufferable in victory.")

More recently, during the Kosovo campaign, Jackson, now Britain's chief of staff, clashed with NATO commander Gen. Wesley Clark, who wanted to drop British paratroops into Pristina airport to prevent a Russian unit from capturing it first.

In Iraq, however, where the very legitimacy of the conflict is a major issue, areas of disagreement between the partners had remained private for much of the past year. This now appears to be over.

Two-pronged fissure
The disputes focus on two particular aspects of the mission: the military tactics used to prevent or subdue an armed insurrection, and the question of the United Nations’ role going forward. In both areas, long-held reservations are coming to the fore.

“On the military side, there really is a sense that the Brits just know how to do these nation-building things a lot better than the Americans,” says Dana Allin, a senior fellow for trans-Atlantic affairs at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Allin, an American with close ties to the British military, notes that the environment in Basra is far less menacing than that in, say, the Sunni triangle, which fell under American control. “But there is a feeling, being expressed increasingly, that the U.S. forces are too heavy-handed, that they don’t have enough of a civil presence, and that they’re not a reassuring presence for Iraqis. Instead, they’re an ominous one.”

‘Softly, softly’
The far less confrontational approach of the British forces in the southern occupation zone centered in Basra has been noted for some time, and British officers are the first to point out that the relative calm that prevails there has allowed them to concentrate on making inroads with local tribal elders and sheiks. Few in Basra mourned the removal of Saddam.

But, says one British officer who returned from Iraq two months ago: “Basra doesn’t explain everything. Even before we had control of the whole city, we had reached agreements with local chieftains to handle security in district A or district B. We don’t have our guys in body armor, we don’t ride around with guns trained on everyone. In the long run, this reassures people.”

Another British officer, recently retired after service in Iraq, says: “It’s not about whether or not they should go into Najaf and Fallujah with guns blazing. It’s about not finding one’s self in that position to begin with, and we told them for months and months that they were heading down this road.”

Political friction
As serious for the coalition is the diverging view British and American officials have on how to turn over sovereignty to Iraqis, draw down coalition forces and — most vitally — to give the mission legitimacy in Iraqi eyes by drawing the United Nations into a leading role.

This is not about a mistake that needs to be corrected,” says a Security Council diplomat. “This is a series of mistakes, beginning, in our view, with the decision to go to war in spite of serious reservations on the part of the world.”

Each error, the diplomat says, led directly to another that compounded it:

  • The lack of international support left the invasion without a northern front in Turkey.
  • The lack of a northern front in Turkey meant Saddam’s homeland, the Sunni triangle, escaped the bulk of the combat.
  • The smaller number of troops deployed left too few in the country to create POW camps, and so Iraq’s army was simply disbanded and sent home.
  • Idled troops, unpaid and with an uncertain future, created a ready base of recruits for an insurgency.
  • The inability of the United States to quickly internationalize the postwar environment allowed the insurgency to cast it as an “occupation.”

“Forget the fact that no weapons of mass destruction were found,” the diplomat says. “That is understandable. Everyone, including the U.N., thought they were there. But the other mistakes compounded each other.”

Fear for the future
Now, faced with demands to take over the occupation zone abandoned by Spain this week, and possibly the Polish zone, too, if Warsaw decides to withdraw after June, British policy appears to be in flux.

The first hint of this came a few months ago, when Britain’s representative in Iraq, Blair’s pro-American former U.N. representative Jeremy Greenstock, resigned in frustration over the course of postwar policy.

Greenstock, an old-fashioned British diplomat who worked diligently with his American counterpart, John Negroponte, as the U.N. debate raged last year, has refused to speak publicly on the topic. But an official who worked with him in the Coalition Provisional Authority described him as disgusted by the lack of outreach to Iraqis who had been sidelined by broad-brush CPA edits on “de-Baathification” and senior officers of the Iraqi Army.

The official also cites a complaint voiced by several British officials involved in Iraq: that their American counterparts took no pains to hide their own ideological goals in getting Iraq pacified. One described senior CPA officials at off-duty functions "wearing  Bush-Cheney T-shirts."

"It's one thing to hold up Western values, or even American values, and say to Iraqis, ‘This is why we're here,’” the official says. "It's quite another to ask them to accept a particular right-wing view of what democracy or the markets or a free world should mean. Even we don't necessarily see eye-to-eye on that."

Michael Moran's Brave New World column appears weekly on Join the Brave New World mailing list.