KUWAIT CITY - British military officials dismissed yesterday suggestions that they lack adequate manpower to secure cities in southern Iraq, saying their primary obstacle instead was a decision made by the United States more than a decade ago.
That decision, announced by the first President Bush on April 27, 1991, was to call an end to the Persian Gulf war, overriding military plans to capture or destroy hundreds of tanks trapped by American forces near Basra, the southern Iraqi city that is now the scene of some of the fiercest fighting.
Whether pulling out of Iraq at the time was a good decision has been debated since the establishment of the cease-fire that ended the first gulf war.
But it is indisputable that thousands of Iraqis in the south were killed by the spared tanks, under orders from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, after they responded to encouragement from Bush to stage a violent uprising but then received no American support.
The deaths came in a monthlong civil war, with Hussein's troops finally regaining order through a campaign of torture and public executions unimpeded by U.S. troops still in the region.
The elder President Bush has said that when he called on the Iraqi people to overthrow Hussein, he was not implying that the U.S. military would help. But people in southern Iraq have not forgotten that the slaughter took place while coalition forces stood by.
British military officials say that the battles now under way in Basra, Najaf and Nasariyah are being fought largely because the people in those cities fear that if they revolt against Hussein, they will be abandoned to his brutality again.
Mistakes of past
"There is a huge amount of fear and distrust of us there, and people do not yet believe that we are at the stage that removal of Saddam Hussein is inevitable," British Army Col. Chris Vernon said yesterday, speaking of townspeople in Basra.
"Because of what has happened in the past, the threshold for them to believe in us is much higher than it was in 1991."
The war scenario considered most likely by U.S. officials prior to the start of fighting foresaw light resistance in the south, with residents welcoming coalition forces.
With the south fallen, Hussein's people would turn on him, the scenario went, and, if not, coalition forces could concentrate almost solely on Baghdad.
"I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators," Vice President Dick Cheney said March 16, days before the war began.
That has not been the case.
Iraqi army forces have dug in at Basra and other southern cities, and members of the fedayeen, Hussein's Baath Party militia, have joined them. Few of the Shiite Muslims in the cities, meanwhile, have had enough faith in the coalition forces to flee or to rebel.
Some of those who tried to escape Basra last week were mowed down with machine-gun fire from Iraqi forces, according to journalists with the British here.
Vernon said reports last week of a limited insurrection in Basra appear now to have been mistaken.
Yesterday, British and American troops combined to continue a dual campaign of military might and psychological warfare while working to persuade residents that coalition forces will protect them if they revolt.
A pair of American F-15E Strike Eagles fired missiles into a two-story building where they said up to 200 Baath Party members were gathered. The missiles were fitted with delayed fuses, military officials said, so they would explode only after penetrating the building, limiting damage to civilians and structures nearby.
British troops, meanwhile, have waged their own military campaign simultaneous to operations that resemble those found in hostage situations. They have knocked out state-run television and radio stations. They were considering knocking out telephone service.
For days, they have been darting into Basra, blasting away at Iraqi forces and then bolting back to their perimeter. Yesterday, they took a more leisurely but bolder approach to demoralizing those who would fight while trying to build the trust of those they had counted on to rebel.
In that effort, two British tanks moved into town, where they rolled over two statues of Hussein.
"This was to show the people, on the one hand, that no longer does he have influence," Vernon said, and to rattle Iraqi forces "by showing them that we can come in with impunity."
Vernon said that a leading Baath Party official, whom he declined to name, has proved to be a "useful source of intelligence to us" since being captured by British forces last week.
Troops would continue to target members of the Baath Party, in part to demonstrate to others in the city that this time, coalition troops intend to liberate Iraq from all parts of Hussein's regime, Vernon said.