first published in the New Statesman, Monday 8th March 2004
Observations on Iraq by Stephen Grey
The first sound was a low roar; then the windows began rattling. Families
woke up and looked outside to see the tanks, armoured cars, trucks and
bulldozers of the British army. It was 4am on 31 July 1972, and 20,000
troops were sweeping into the IRA’s “no-go zones”.
The launch of Operation Motorman brought an end to “Free Derry” in the
Bogside and to IRA control of parts of West Belfast. Twenty-two years later,
as insurgents cause havoc across northern Iraq, most recently with the
blasts in Karbala and Baghdad, US commanders are preparing for operations
similar to Operation Motorman in an attempt to defeat the resistance.
I have just returned from seven weeks in Iraq, and my impression from
talking to US military officers, resistance fighters and ordinary people in
the Sunni Triangle is that there are two distinct threats. Most Iraqi
resistance fighters will tolerate almost any attack on Americans and their
local “collaborators”. But they do not support the cells of mainly foreign
fighters who kill civilians indiscriminately with the kinds of attacks seen
Both sets of fighters, however, operate from what amount to no-go zones
within many of the towns and cities of the Sunni Triangle. Although there
are no Derry-style barricades, the sheer frequency of attacks and the depth
of civilian hostility have led the US army in effect to pull out – and so to
lose any significant ability to collect intelligence on the ground.
For example, I spent a day in Fallujah, an hour’s drive west of Baghdad,
without seeing a single American soldier. I also found almost universal
support for the resistance. A week later, insurgents raided and captured the
police station, killing 23 and freeing prisoners; the American forces made
But now, a new rotation of more than 100,000 US troops is arriving in Iraq –
trained no longer just for major combat but for a specialised
counter-insurgency mission. On the streets of Ramadi, I talked to US
soldiers from the 82nd Airborne, who are about to hand over to the marines.
“From my perspective,” said David Pit-tare, “the 82nd has been too soft.
We’ve let ourselves be attacked and then we run away. The marines will
change that. If they get attacked, they will flatten the area.”
Two major lessons emerge from Ulster. The first is the need to clear any
zone where a guerrilla feels safe. Duncan Spinner, whose Argyll and
Sutherland Highlanders battalion came to Iraq after three years in Belfast,
told me: “Above everything else, there is the need to dominate the ground –
to prevent the insurgents being able to prepare and manoeuvre with ease.
Only then can you get about and start gathering the sort of intelligence you
need.” The second lesson is the famous one about operating within the law
and winning “hearts and minds”. This, I was told, was emphasised by British
officers who visited training camps in Texas last year to share experiences
from Northern Ireland. After all, even General Sir Frank Kitson, whose
manual Low-Intensity Operations caused such outrage in the early 1970s by
urging army officers to prepare for counter-insurgency operations on the
British mainland, stressed the need to win local consent and (unlike the
Americans in Iraq) to veto the use of helicopter gunships, bombers and
Although the US is desperate to withdraw from Iraq and hand over
sovereignty, and although the troops now arriving are said to be “culturally
sensitised”, the hardest confrontations may lie ahead.
This article first appeared in the New Statesman. For the latest in current
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