Mon, Mar 08, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Iraqis prefer UK soldiers to their US counterparts

DEJA VU Basra's residents say the British are more understanding of Iraqi culture and even while raiding homes, `they shake hands and are polite'


The British have had a far more peaceful time in Iraq than the Americans. The zone they occupy in the south is mainly populated by sympathetic Shiite Muslims, and residents say British troops -- experienced from their imperial past in Iraq -- treat the people with much more sensitivity.

The result is that the British military has had 14 soldiers killed in combat since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April, compared to more than 370 among the Americans, who patrol the central "Sunni Triangle," where the anti-occupation insurgency is at its hottest.

Iraqis in the south's main city, Basra, give the British high marks for showing more understanding of Iraqi culture and religion and having a softer touch in keeping security. Even while raiding homes, "they shake hands and are polite," said Sheik Abdul-Sattar al-Bahadli, an aide to the hardline Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

For the British, being in Iraq is deja vu.

British troops seized Iraq from the Ottoman Turks in World War I and occupied the country. By 1920, the country was in open rebellion, which the UK crushed in three months of fighting. But the country remained unruly and difficult to govern until the UK granted full independence in 1932.

Today's 8,220-member British force is part of a multinational division of more than 13,000 forces from 13 countries that is responsible for four southern provinces covering about a quarter of Iraq, some 150,000km2 -- a region that is much less fertile ground for anti-occupation violence than the mainly Sunni regions north and west of Baghdad.

The Shiites who dominate the south were harshly persecuted by Saddam's regime and generally backed the war that forced him from power. Foreign fighters or Saddam loyalists thought to be behind the anti-US insurgency do not have a support base among the population.

No British soldier has been killed by hostile fire since Oct. 31.

"The truth is we do have a lot of experience in the peacekeeping area," said squadron leader Major David King. "But would we have the same problem had we been in control of Sunni areas? I don't know. We still take precautions."

Many here say the reason for the peace also lies with the way British soldiers treat the local population.

US soldiers' heavy-handed methods in Fallujah, Ramadi and other Sunni cities has fueled support for the insurgency in those areas.

Tribal leaders have been subjected to humiliating arrests in front of their tribesmen, hooded and handcuffed. US troops also were accused of putting their boots on the back of men's heads as they lay face down.

"The British are more experts in colonialism than the Americans," explained Sheik al-Bahadli in Basra. "I have never heard of a British soldier putting his foot on the head of an Iraqi while his hands are tied," said al-Bahadli.

"They are more civilized," said Rubab al-Sudani, dean of the history department at Basra University. "Americans behave like cowboys and are too rough with the people."

But even those who praise the British say they resent their presence as occupiers. And some criticize them for having too soft a touch, ignoring crime and militia violence in Basra and offering little support to Iraqi police trying to keep order.

"We are not happy with them," said al-Sudani. "We cannot accept the fact that someone from the outside is ruling us."

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