- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

LONDON, March 28 (UPI) — More than a week into the war in Iraq and Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, is still not under the control of the U.S.-led coalition despite some of the heaviest fighting yet.

The London Times called the battle for Basra the "Biggest British tank battle since El Alamein," referring to the famous WWII North African battle that pitted Nazi Germany's Field Marshal Erwin Rommel against Britain's Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. It was there, in the North African desert, that Britain's 7th Armored Brigade — the same troops now fighting in Iraq — got the nickname the Desert Rats.

While Saddam's Hussein's beleaguered forces holding out in the southern port city are by no means comparable to Rommel's formidable Afrika Korps, according to initial American intelligence estimates, by now, Basra should have fallen into allied hands like a ripened fruit.

But day nine into the conflict, the city remains "unsecured" and fighting continues apace.

While top brass military analysts in the Pentagon burn the midnight oil trying to figure out the reasons why their strategy may have not gone entirely according to plan, they might want to consider the fact that the Iraqi south is mostly populated by Shiite Muslims.

Although the Shiites that live in Basra and its surrounding areas have no love whatsoever for Saddam, his Republican Guards, Baath Party paramilitaries, or Fedayeen goons, they nevertheless have just as much distrust of America and its foreign policy.

Shiites and Americans have history in this region — and none of it is really any good.

People have long memories in this part of the world. The Shiites recall, for instance, that when the Baath Party came to power in a bloody coop, it was with the help of the CIA. And they have suffered much since.

They recall the bloody eight-year war with Iran — a nation of fellow Shiites — during which the United States supported Saddam, providing him with weapons, even helping him get started on some of the chemical and biological warfare agents they now have come to collect.

And most of all, they recall the period after the first Gulf War in 1991, when they rose up in open revolt against Saddam. U.S.-led coalition forces — having driven the Iraqi army from Kuwait — were only a few miles away from the outskirts of Basra, but remained there, abandoning the Shiites at the last minute to the wrath of Saddam's thugs.

About 200,000 Iraqi Shiites were brutally slaughtered in the south by Saddam's forces after the failed uprising. This is not a typographical error. Read it again, two hundred thousand dead after the end of Desert Storm.

This fact alone explains why coalition troops fighting "to liberate" Iraqis have not yet been greeted with open arms.

"It is hardly surprising that Iraqis are suspicious of their liberators' motives," Patrick Cockburn, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, writes in The Independent.

"There is a deeply colonial spirit in which, in the run-up to the war, the United States and Britain have treated Iraqis not belonging to the regime, as if they had no thoughts or aims of their own. It is a dangerous stance because, although the majority of Iraqis do not like Saddam — they know that through launching two disastrous wars against Iran and Kuwait he has ruined their lives and their country — they do not blame him alone," says Cockburn, the co-author of "Saddam Hussein: an American Obsession."

Not only that, but America has locked horns with the Shiites numerous times over the past decades, often with devastating results. Such was the case in Iran after the Islamic revolution when Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the shah, and similarly in Lebanon when the Marines arrived in 1982 as part of a multinational force.

So forget about being greeted with open arms, the Shiites in southern Iraq are having a very hard time right now opening their minds.

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