Dangerous double duty as aggressors, liberators

Coalition troops balance need to stay alive with need to win Iraqis' trust

War In Iraq

April 02, 2003|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Marines in Nasiriyah are fighting the battle with medicine for sick mothers and candy for children. In the port city of Umm Qasr, British troops are distributing food and water to hungry families.

Throughout allied-controlled Iraq, troops are waging a campaign that could prove nearly as crucial -- and dangerous -- as the battle being fought with bombs and bullets. Their mission is to somehow win the hearts of the Iraqi people, even as they root out and kill the enemies among them.

That delicate straddle between the roles of attacker and liberator has limited the ferocity of the allied air assault and protected some Iraqi troops. Bombers have mostly avoided targets in residential neighborhoods, and troops spared Iraqi fighters in the holy city of Najaf who huddled near Islamic shrines deemed too sacred to attack.

The strategy almost certainly will lengthen the war and cause a higher number of allied casualties, analysts say.

But to ignore the plight of civilians would jeopardize all hope of winning over the people of Iraq and the rest of the world, they say. And that could be a catastrophe tantamount to losing the war.

"These are terrible dilemmas, and in some sense irreconcilable dilemmas," said Arthur C. Helton, the director of peace and conflict studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "To win this war, it will be necessary to win the peace. And military forces are not the best-suited instruments for that purpose."

Avoiding civilian casualties, or failing to do so, stands to resonate on a global scale, Helton said, especially in a world where millions oppose the U.S.-led war.

"Winning the peace is not just about winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people," he said, "it's about winning over the American people, and the European people, and people all over the world. In broad terms, this is an extension of the overall crisis of legitimacy that has aligned much of the world against this war."

Military officials said yesterday that efforts to court favor with the Iraqi people are showing modest progress, measured in smiles and handshakes and nuggets of shared information.

In Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq, civilians helped allied forces locate enemy soldiers who had been bombed overnight, a U.S. general said. Farther north in Diwaniyah, an American captain said civilians pointed out the Baath Party headquarters and a command bunker for Saddam Hussein's loyalists.

Each friendly encounter marked a cautious step forward. British troops in the south replaced their helmets with berets yesterday, and leaders hailed the switch as a distinct shift toward victory.

"It shows that we have confidence in them, and they can have confidence in us," said Group Capt. Al Lockwood, a spokesman for British forces in Iraq. "They realize that we are there to liberate them, not to occupy."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that some Iraqis appear "emboldened" by speculation that Hussein might have died the first night of the war, and that their "fear is beginning to slip away."

But the battle is far from won, even in the southern Shiite regions where American officials had hoped for a mass embrace from the liberated populace. Throughout the country, soldiers still encounter skepticism and mistrust. And paramilitary forces, who have posed as friendly civilians only to open fire on welcoming American troops, soured any chance to easily resolve tensions.

"We have to earn their trust, and there's no way to do it other than to get in there with the people and start talking with them and listening to them," said Fred Peck, a retired Marine Corps colonel who faced similar challenges in Somalia a decade ago. "But how can you be sure that guy isn't going to pull a rifle out from under his robe, or that woman isn't going to drop a grenade? You have to consider them all hostile. There's no other choice."

American forces have had to change their methods of dealing with civilians because of surprise attacks and a suicide bombing, military officials say.

Initially told not to fire their weapons unless fired upon, troops now have permission to shoot people who advance too close or refuse to identify themselves. Instead of sending groups of soldiers to meet and converse with civilians, one-man encounters are now the rule -- with a team of soldiers a safe distance away, rifles at the ready.

Troops are trained for encounters with civilians, typically in urban combat exercises where actors are scattered throughout the simulated battlefield. And they are taught to prepare for the rigors of a "three-block war" -- an urban fight that transforms from a humanitarian mission, to a peacekeeping mission, to a firefight from one block to the next.

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