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

on Tuesday.

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

no intervention.

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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