| An Iraqi woman watches a British commando in Umm Qasr. (Reuters)
Umm Qasr, March 30 (Reuters): Fresh graffiti on a building in this port town in southern Iraq reads “Down with USA”— painted over the original “Down with Iraq” slogan from before the US-led invasion.
Residents here say the change, in the predominantly Shia south noted for its opposition to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, has been fuelled by US troops’ rough handling of civilians which now poses problems for their British allies.
During the Vietnam war, a popular response to the mantra of winning over the civilian population was “grab them by the balls, and their hearts and minds will follow”. That appears to be the tactics of the forces leading the war in Iraq, except it is US forces who are attacking Iraq’s underbelly and British troops being left to make friends after.
The southern Shias also remember how the US urged them in 1991 to rise up against Saddam’s largely Sunni leadership only to abandon them to brutal suppression of their revolt. The suspicions are not being allayed by the attitude of many of the US troops here.
A regular complaint heard in the vast swathe of southern Iraq already under occupation is that US forces — mostly at the front of advances through the country — are rude and hostile to civilians caught up in the conflict. “Are they fighting us or are they fighting Saddam'” asked teacher Mohammed Salik when questioned on what he thought of the US servicemen he had encountered.
US forces who took the port of Umm Qasr won few friends among the civilian population and some British troops now charged with setting up a transitional authority complain they are having to undo damage caused by the Americans.
One British officer being given an escort by Marines to his headquarters expressed alarm when they let loose with a volley of rifle fire at a house on the outskirts of the town. “They said they had been sniped at from there a few days ago so they like to give them a warning every now and then,” he said. “That is something we would never condone,” he said. “You aren’t going to make any friends doing that.”
A US special forces officer in Umm Qasr said it was difficult to contain the exuberance of men doing the actual fighting and sometimes they could overstep the mark. “You got to realise these guys are single-minded in their training. In the military it is look after yourself and your buddies. Full stop,” he said.
That role is being left to the British forces who, in the main, are taking up positions once US troops move through. The British have generally been polite and helpful where possible. Soldiers chat amiably with civilians even though neither party has a clue what the other is saying. “I think it is a question of training,” one British officer said. “American soldiers have all the benefits of technology and unbelievable training. But British soldiers tend to have a more human approach. Perhaps it is because we are used to things like Northern Ireland.”