The Lessons Of Basra

As American troops roll into Baghdad this weekend, the experience of U.S. Marines and British Desert Rats and Royal Marines in Basra and vicinity may well be instructive. Even without taking Basra, they've had a good taste of what in effect amounts to urban warfare--and the results are not pretty. They've done it in a way designed to keep casualties low, encourage internal revolt and win over the locals. But it has been slow going.

On Friday, British troops advanced into the actual suburbs of Basra, blasting their way into the sprawling Basra Technical Institute along a highway from the west where for the past week residents have been streaming out from and back into the city--they are not actually refugees, but rather commuters, looking for food and water. An armored battalion of Irish Guards took that bridge and forced Iraqis back deeper into the city, uncovering huge arms caches in private homes along the way. Iraqi troops, many of them in civilian clothes and others in unusual pantaloons and headscarves indicating some sort of irregular force, were holed up in institutions like the technical school, and also in private homes, so the British were pushing their advance very slowly. They were also doing their best to try to win people over. Instead of checkpoints, they were letting people flow freely--so freely that our little press convoy nearly charged into Iraqi lines before we saw our mistake. Searches now were only random, and pretty light handed. When Iraqi mortars and small arms opened up, people scattered and traffic stopped, but that only lasted a few hours in the afternoon, after which the Brits advanced a few hundred yards farther down the road. "We're continuing to set the conditions of entry to Basra, and we're waiting to see whether Basra might fall internally," said Captain Niall Brennan, the second in command of the battalion there.

That's essentially what the Brits have been doing for the first two weeks of the war, laying a sort of "siege with cat flaps" around Basra, and hammering Iraqi positions whenever they find them from a safe distance, but otherwise trying to allow life to go on. "With our aggressive actions, we're trying to promote normality," says Brennan. The big problem, though, is persuading people they're serious this time. "They [people in Basra] didn't actually believe we were here, that British forces were really here just outside Basra." And others questioned whether they'd just see another 1991 abandonment. They addressed that problem forthrightly with a pamphlet all the troops pass out between firefights, reading "This time we're here to stay, so let's cooperate for victory. People of Basra, we're here to liberate Iraq. Our enemy is the Baath party, not civilians. We need your help to know our enemy and to reconstruct Iraq. Please would people who speak English come forward. We will stay as long as it takes." In addition, they've been broadcasting the same message into Basra on Two Rivers Radio, an Arabic propaganda station put together by the coalition; with Iraqi TV and radio off the airwaves, it's the only thing people can hear from outside now. But so far, there is no sign of insurrection. "We're continuing to set the conditions of entry to Basra," says Capt. Brennan. "while allowing room to see whether Basra might fall internally. For a week now, though, we've been hearing that the Brits plan to finish liberating Basra in the next couple days.

Basra is a city of 1.2 million people, and moving on it cautiously makes good sense--especially with the example fresh in everyone's minds of the next town over, Az Zubayr. With a population of 200,000, it's a sprawling community covering a large area, like a country village that just kept growing. Coalition forces entered Az Zubayr on the fourth day of the war, and British and American troops encountered fierce resistance--but not so much from organized military units. Instead, Fedayeen and other irregulars forced their way into the homes of local Shiites and used them as firing positions. They parked tanks inside the walls around the Zubayr General Hospital, and militiamen in the windows of the two floor building. The result is plain to see now: shattered walls and broken windows, and a huge missile hole that goes in one wall and out the other of the office of the hospital director, Abdul Hussein Yasir Hussein. Dr. Hussein was in his office when the missile went through, and miraculously was unhurt. Other people in town were not so lucky. The hospital treated 250 war wounded persons since the war began, and it's morgue tallied 60 dead. Dr. Hussein maintains all of them were civilians--or at least dressed in civilian clothes.

Dr. Hussein chooses his words very carefully. He doesn't denounce Saddam's regime, he doesn't denounce the Americans. Though after a British officer visited and took down the ubiquitous portrait of the leader on the wall two days ago, Dr. Hussein promptly put it back up after he left. On the other hand, he praises the British soldiers for their correctness with him. But he also worries about the lack of any civil authority, and the inability of the British to provide police protection. "This war is different now [from 1991]. Previously there was a government, after the rebellion we lost safety for only one or two days only, but here we've had no safety for 16 days." Dr. Hussein denies that any troops took up arms within the hospital itself, but he does acknowledge that many of the "militia" were in civilian dress and fighting from people's homes. And he can't imagine why the British army came back four days ago and searched the entire hospital, looking for arms and Baathist party officials. What he's worried about, he says, are the looters, who his staff had to fight off with their bare hands last week. "I asked the British army to help but they said they weren't concerned with policing."

His wife, a gynecologist named Hana al-Asadi, spins it differently. She recalls hiding with her children in the bathtub of their home, the safest place. Iraqi irregulars were breaking into homes, forcing people to fight and taking cover among cowering families--the reason for the high casualties. "They were shooting at the houses and a lot of families were directly in the way," she said. "A complete family was killed, mother, father, children. Not only were they dead but in pieces." While the British are in the streets of Az Zubayr, the war is not over yet. They arrested many of the top Baathists, and the regime's police all fled. "We're still afraid," she says. "We still may be hunted by them, we hope after the fighting people will be different, but not yet, not yet. Not until the main head is finished in Baghdad, we want that as soon as possible, after they get rid of the chief head, all of us will help you."

In the town, the Saddam signs and statues have been destroyed--but not by the locals, by the coalition troops. At a tea shop, an angry crowd gathers when one man starts yelling about the British destroying pictures of Saddam and tearing down Iraqi flags. "If they get Saddam," says one, shaking with anger, "we have a thousand other Saddams here. We're just sitting and waiting to see what's going to happen and then we're going to fight for everything." Not everyone is hostile; most are just scared. We stop people to talk but they hurry away, saying they're worried about who's watching. Some linger long enough to repeat Dr. al-Asadi's take: "Cut off the head of the snake and it's all finished," is a oft-heard refrain, but only in private. A local tribal leader is asked if he'll slaughter a sheep to celebrate when Saddam falls; "no," he laughs, "I'll kill a camel." Even that, though, is a furtive conversation.

Az Zubayr is a big town, and a regiment of soldiers is hardly enough to be everywhere. Five British soldiers have gone missing here, and two were killed in ambushes. That sort of resistance has died down now, says tank officer Lt. Tom McDermott. "Every day people are gaining confidence in us now that the party is less evident." Some patrols even go without body armor and helmets, donning berets instead, as a confidence building measure. "Hearts and minds is definitely kicking in." But at the same, he acknowledges, "Az Zubayr is still a dangerous area." Just imagine what Baghdad will be like a couple weeks into its occupation.