Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Visiting the Brits in Basra

I spent my first night in Iraq in Um Qasr on April 10, 2003. Um Qasr is Iraq's only port and at that time was being managed by Her Majesty's Armed Forces. The local news of interest was that packs of dogs roaming the port had gotten too aggressive and had even attacked and killed an Iraqi child. Consequently, the local commander had put the Brit Special Forces unit assigned to him on doggie detail, and they had begun summarily executing the dogs.

A U.S. Army female civil affairs captain and veterinarian had adopted a local pooch and came home from work to find her dog was dead. She objected to the Brit commander's canine policy by walking to the commander's office and dumping her dog's bloodied carcass on his desk. This wasn't nearly as colorful as the Army civil affairs Major, assigned to support a British Army infantry battalion, who made the front page of several British newspapers by accusing the battlion commander of war crimes. Or the Army (civil affairs once again) officer who got drunk with some Coalition force (country unspecified) brethern and decided to visit the Baghdad zoo. In the middle of the night. Our drunk friend decided to play with a rare tiger and accidentially got his arm in the tiger's mouth. He solved the conflict by shooting and killing the rare tiger with a war souvenir pistol that he wasn't supposed to have.

These stories are all true. I can't make this stuff up.

Um Qasr seemed like a fun place, and the British Army served a great breakfast with stewed tomatoes and eggs and bacon and sweet tea with milk but I had to get to Basra to meet with the civil-military officer for the British First Armored Division who had requested my presence. There were a lot of dead/abandoned Iraqi armored vehicles on the road, and LTC Murphy did a good job of navigating through the streets of Basra to the Armored Division headquarters on the grounds of "Chemical" Ali's palace.

I brought along some good officers with me: fellow Army Reservists who had excellent skills from their civilian jobs and who might be able to provide some real assistance to the Brits in their new task of running a large metropolis like Basra. This was a strange interview and I have thought back on it often. After I found him, he ushered me and my officers into this cavernous room in one of the buildings on the Palace grounds. The buildings all looked brand new and were in impeccable condition, except for one of the smaller ones on the compound which had taken a direct hit from a bomb dropped by a Harrier. The buildings looked so new that I thought at the time that the furnishings had not yet been installed. Later, after seeing the ruthless efficiency with which the Iraqi populace had stripped other buildings, I wasn't so sure.

The Brit officer was very polite. He sat us all down, said that they had basically just arrived, and asked us what we had to offer. The First Marine Expeditionary Force (or MEF) was technically the higher headquarters for the British First Armored Division, but they had a direct line open to Downing Street, and paid a little more attention to Tony Blair than they did to General Conway, the Marine MEF Commander. My civil affairs unit's responsibility was to support the MEF and General Conway. Thus, when the Brits asked for civil affairs support I and my team was sent.

I wonder what this Brit officer was expecting to get from us. He obviously was expecting something or he wouldn't have asked. What we had to offer wasn't what he wanted because he heard us out, thanked us politely, ushered us on our way and never called again. I thought that he wanted technical expertise in the gritty business of running a city. Thinking back on it now, I believe he wanted to hear what kind of guidance had been issued on the occupation of the country. He was looking for a plan. I didn't have one to give him, so he sent me on my way.

When you think about it, the task of occupying this large, Muslim country was formidable and as military officers, this Brit was curious about what the civilian leadership had in mind. As I was. Maybe he thought that the Americans had a plan for the occupation of the country. Maybe we had thought this thing out, and considered all the issues that would arise when the invasion ended and the occupation began. But I had nothing like that to offer. Instead, I had a few guys who might help him get the trains to run on time.

No comments:

Post a Comment