- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

LONDON, March 28 (UPI) — One word — executed — is defining just how careful senior officials are having to be in the propaganda war that now dominates the current phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The word was used by Prime Minister Tony Blair at his news conference with President Bush on Thursday, when he described how two British soldiers were captured and then killed by Iraqis near Basra.

On the back foot in a war whose strategy is being increasingly questioned, Blair used the word executed in an effort to emphasize his fundamental point about why the brutal Saddam Hussein regime has to be got rid of.

But he stirred a hornet's nest at home. With tabloid newspapers blazing the word across their front pages, the two men's families were horrified. And with the British Army refusing to offer any evidence to support Blair, by Friday afternoon Defense Minister Adam Ingram was obliged to apologize publicly, saying the government regretted any pain the prime minister may have caused the families.

This is the dilemma Blair and Bush now find themselves in the second week of Gulf War II: Say too much about the evils of Saddam's regime and you risk being caught out as blind propagandists. Say too little and you risk losing momentum to attack, particularly if that requires taking on a major risk of casualties in probably-vicious house-to-house fighting.

British and American military and political commanders are currently weighing that balance as their forces pause to regroup and resupply, an expected situation after a remarkable week of rapid progress through Iraq. So far the allied message that they are liberators and that Saddam is finished has not been getting through to the Iraqi population.

The British believe Basra is the key test bed for allied action against Baghdad, assuming the conventional threat posed by the Republican Guard can be dealt with. This is a city where one British company commander, Maj. Lindsay MacDuff, reportedly said Thursday that a man dressed in civilian clothes claiming he or his family would be killed if he was not allowed to escape through a British checkpoint was later seen back in Basra and on the opposition front line carrying an AK-47 rifle.

"We can only hope the message gets through that we are here to offer them a lifeline," said MacDuff.

Thursday, British officials reported that 2,000 Iraqi civilians attempting to leave the besieged city were attacked by mortars mounted on the back of pickup trucks used by Saddam's Fedayeen. British press pool reports described how some people fled back into the city while panicked women and children scattered on a bridge over a canal and down its embankments to avoid machine-gun fire.

British troops in Warrior infantry fighting vehicles forced their way in between the gunmen and the civilians, while British medics went to the aid of wounded civilians.

The incidents appear to have decided British commanders that enough is enough. They ordered more decisive action on Basra, initially taking over the local radio station which had been constantly broadcasting Saddam's messages urging people to fight and issuing threats if the population did not.

Defense sources indicated that the next two or three days would see much more aggressive patrolling by British troops into Basra as the allies sought to separate the gunmen and Baath party leaders from the population. The arrival at Umm Qasr port of the British ship Sir Galahad with 350 tons of humanitarian supplies is to be used in a "hearts and mind" effort to get Basra's citizens to accept the allies as liberators.

In some respects the situation is similar to that of Kosovo 1999, when NATO troops led by Gen. Sir Michael Jackson had to separate the revenge-driven KLA paramilitaries from the terrified local population. Jackson, a "hands-on" soldier who is now chief of the British General Staff, said Friday in London that the dilemma for allied commanders is the degree to which they prosecute the war against enemies "who are not Iraqi civilians" yet who mingle with them.

"It calls for careful judgments and clever tactics," he said.

In Qatar, Maj. Gen. Peter Wall, chief of staff of British forces, said: "The real issue is whether we can get an uprising. It's a question of time, but we are optimistic it will occur."

In military terms, senior British officers believe that Iraqi forces in the south are now "fixed," and have little scope for movement. They are asking for time and a little patience from a competitive media which sees only snapshots of the war, not the whole strategic picture, and assumes that when little is obviously happening to fill its air time that the troops are bogged down.

The British have put themselves forward as world experts in patient "hearts and minds" urban conflict, based on many years of experience from Malaya to Northern Ireland and Kosovo. With a predominantly Shia population, the shortest supply lines to Kuwait and to the port of Umm Qasr, senior officers are confident they will succeed.

The Americans certainly hope so. They rightly fear that if the Brits cannot control Basra in a reasonable amount of time there is little chance for them in tackling the far bigger nut of Baghdad. As the U.S. forces build their strength in central Iraq, the spotlight will be on the British to prove they can make good on their optimism.

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