Once skeptical, British general optimistic on Iraq

Outgoing chief predicts good chance of returning stable nation to its people

December 24, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - When British Maj. Gen. Graeme Lamb arrived in June to lead the mainly European force controlling southeastern Iraq, he was skeptical, he said. He felt, he said yesterday, that "this is going to be a lot more difficult than we realized."

But as Lamb, 50, prepared to hand his command to another British general, he said Saddam Hussein's capture and other changes - including progress in restoring oil installations, power stations and running water, as well as Iraqis' fast-rising prosperity - have fostered a new confidence that the American-led occupation force can eventually hand a politically stable Iraq back to its people.

"Is this do-able?" he said at a news conference here yesterday. "You'd better believe it."

The British officer described himself as neither optimist nor pessimist but "a hard-boiled realist," then offered an upbeat assessment that matched that of American generals here. "I think we're in great shape," he said.

Lamb took a jab at the news media. Western reporters, he implied, had come to an early conclusion that the allied undertaking in Iraq would not succeed and had failed to adjust. He compared this with criticism that greeted allied forces in the first stages of the spring invasion, when resistance stalled the drive to Baghdad.

The plan allowed 125 days to take Baghdad, and it was accomplished in 23 days, but, he told reporters, "You had us dead and buried in seven days."

The general was finishing his six-month command of an 11-nation contingent of 13,000 troops, based in Basra, that controls about a quarter of Iraq, home to 5 million people.

Lamb said Hussein's capture on Dec. 13 in an underground bunker near Tikrit had lifted the shadow that his months as a fugitive left on Iraqis: "We've just buried that nail in the coffin, he's not coming back."

For the insurgents, this removed a figurehead, if not a cause, while for other Iraqis, particularly Shiites, the country's largest single group, it lifted a widespread fear of Hussein's restoration that had acted as a drag on the allied forces' prospects, he said.

"These are difficult waters that those who are against us swim in," he said.

At times, he tempered his enthusiasm. "I sense that we're well in the corner," he said. "We haven't turned the corner - this is a huge undertaking - but we are moving forward."

Lamb said he spoke principally from his experience in the south, where the population is 85 percent Shiite. But he based his conclusions, too, he said, on first-hand knowledge of conditions faced by fellow allied commanders: the American generals who command 120,000 American troops in military districts that account for 20 million other Iraqis, including Baghdad and the restive Sunni Muslim regions north and west of the capital.

It is in these regions that more than 90 percent of the attacks on allied forces have occurred. The south has been far quieter, although Lamb said 20 British soldiers had died since he took command.

Progress, he said, has been rapid in meeting grievances in the south. He gave a chronicle of more than 1,000 repair and rebuilding projects involving oil installations, water-pumping stations and pipes, power stations and concrete plants, as well as schools, hospitals, clinics, cultural institutions and other institutions.

With funds from the United States, Britain and other international donors, he said, spending could soon rise to $250 million on infrastructure that deteriorated disastrously under Hussein.

Part of the frustration expressed by Iraqis over the occupation, he suggested, arose because some had exaggerated expectations. He said civic leaders had approached him claiming that "before the war, everybody in Basra had running water" and many had lost it as a result of allied bombing attacks.

But he said he had produced Water Department charts showing that a third of the city never had pipes to carry water in the first place - typical in areas not favored by Hussein. Pipes were being installed, he said.

For the most part, Lamb offered a view similar to that of U.S. commanders, who have repeatedly said allied forces will prevail, laying the groundwork for the democracy that President Bush has said is his goal in Iraq. But Lamb also struck notes of gentle admonishment. At one point, he said that, drawing from his experience in conflicts elsewhere, it was "slightly simplistic" to use the declining number of daily attacks by insurgents as a barometer of progress because it measures only a part of the challenge facing the occupation forces.

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