Accessibility links

US Forces Getting Advice on Urban Warfare from British Troops in Iraq

Some British soldiers in southern Iraq are trading their helmets for berets. It's part of a move to soften their image as they take up peacekeeping duties in cities behind the front lines. The British experience with urban warfare in Northern Ireland has taught them they need a soft touch to win over the local population. And, American forces are getting advice on urban combat from the British.

Behind the front lines, Ba'ath party militiamen and members of Saddam's Fedayeen are striking American and British forces while mixing in with the civilian population. Military experts expect to see more of these tactics in the battle for Baghdad.

The British military has seen this kind of combat before. British soldiers have faced paramilitary forces in the streets of Northern Ireland for more than 30 years.

Paul Ingram, a senior analyst at BASIC, the British American Security Information Council, a London-based research center, says the British learned from some serious mistakes they made in Northern Ireland, especially in the early days of the conflict.

"We had several incidents where British forces fired on demonstrators. And so that created a lot of problems within the area, and required a lot of learning on the part of British forces," he said.

The British had a heavy hand in Northern Ireland, especially in the late 1960s and 1970s. There were several deadly clashes with civilians, and mass roundups and detentions. These tactics built resentment against the British forces, and helped the paramilitary Irish Republican Army and others gain recruits.

Professor Martin Edmonds, who directs the Center for Defense and International Security Studies at the University of Lancaster, pointed out that in time, the British military has realized its heavy-handed tactics were backfiring.

"The experience in Northern Ireland has been that, when elite forces are used, people like the Marines and the parachute regiment, who tend to push the door down and then ask questions afterward, tends to generate a resentment amongst the civil community and resistance," he said.

So the British troops instead tried using more low-key tactics. They took off their metal helmets, and wore berets instead. They got involved with the local communities. They took on roles more like heavily-armed street police than conquering soldiers.

They found cooperation improved when they used a softer touch. Residents were less hostile, and more willing to give them information about paramilitaries in the area.

Developing this kind of trust is essential for the long-term success of the mission, whether it's in Northern Ireland or Iraq, according to Paul Ingram from BASIC.

"You have an absolutely critical importance of the forces interacting positively with most of the civilians, rather than seeing everybody as a potential threat," he said.

"I think the message is, it's much better in these circumstances to go around with a velvet glove but carry a big stick," said Professor Edmonds.

British forces in southern Iraq have already begun to put on their berets.

But a similar transformation has not been reported among the American forces. International relations professor Andrew Bacevich at Boston University says there is a simple explanation.

"At this juncture, U.S. forces and British forces are facing a different adversary and have different priorities," he said.

Mr. Bacevich points out the Americans are fighting Republican Guard forces at the front lines, and unexpectedly stiff resistance in the rear. In contrast, he says, the British forces that have taken off their metal helmets are mostly dealing with low-level resistance from irregular forces.

Vice president Dan Goure of the Lexington Institute, a Washington research center, says policing urban areas is not something American forces have extensive experience with.

"We train largely to take over the terrain. Worrying about civilians, but this is sort-of a seizure operation. We don't typically train our soldiers for the post-seizure, if you will, policing," he said.

Mr. Goure says American peacekeepers in the Balkans at first lacked police training, and too often hid behind their armor when out on patrol. He says this is not the way to build trust.

Retired U.S. Marine Colonel Randy Gangle, executive director of the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities, a Marine research center, agrees the American approach to peacekeeping in the Balkans has been different than the British approach.

"We've got this kind of Camp Bondsteel mentality, an armored fortress, and every time we foray out we've got these heavily armored patrols with troops in armor and flak jackets," he said.

But, although he says he can't speak for the other branches of the military, he says, the Marines, at least, are learning from the British experience.

"What we teach in the Marine Corps is if you're doing peacekeeping, peace support operations, you want to do it more on the British model," he said. "But for what we're seeing in Iraq today I'd say it's probably somewhere between the two capabilities is where we're evolving to."

The Army is also getting advice from the British on working in urban environments. Colonel Gangle says American soldiers are adaptable, and will adjust to low-level urban warfare. But analysts say, if the Iraqi forces lose their will to fight, it may make a change in tactics unnecessary.