N. Ireland Duty Prepared British Troops
Apr. 03, 2003
BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ The enemy doesn't wear uniforms, it hits road checkpoints with car bombs, and it melts into a civilian population that troops cannot afford to kill.
Three decades of Irish Republican Army violence in Northern Ireland have given British soldiers experience in urban patrolling and helped them develop both a well-honed instinct for ambushes and a sense of restraint.
Those Belfast street smarts could serve the British well as the coalition gears up for what could be treacherous urban fighting in Baghdad, military experts say.
``The United States has the mightiest military that the world has ever known. But once you get into an urban environment, U.S. technological superiority will get neutralized to a great extent and some British strengths will come into play,'' said Garth Whitty, a 25-year Army veteran and defense analyst with the Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies.
Britain's familiarity with hostile civilian turf has already proved useful in its methodical siege of the southern city of Basra. It promises to be invaluable once Baghdad falls and conventional war gives way, potentially, to hit-and-run insurrection by Iraqi irregular forces.
While U.S. forces focus on sheer aggression and high-tech advantage for quick results, Northern Ireland has modeled the British military into a patient beast _ a quality, analysts say, that will be crucial in the psychological war in Iraq.
``What we learned from Northern Ireland _ often painfully, because we didn't get it all right _ was the importance of winning hearts and minds,'' said Paul Cornish, director of the Center for Defense Studies in London.
The IRA ended up killing more than 1,800 people, including 600 soldiers, before calling a truce six years ago. In comparison, the British Army killed 300 people, roughly split between civilians and combatants.
Jonathan Stevenson, senior fellow for counterterrorism studies at London's International Institute of Strategic Studies, noted that Britain has never repeated the mistake of ``Bloody Sunday'' _ the 1972 atrocity in which British paratroopers killed 13 demonstrators in Northern Ireland, whipping up Catholic support for the IRA.
Many British techniques pioneered in Northern Ireland are likely to be used in Iraq, where British troops have already attempted a more overtly friendly approach with locals.
``The British have learned that your best intel (intelligence) comes from very quietly chatting to people in the streets, preferably in a beret instead of full body armor,'' Whitty said.
``The U.S. Army sees force protection as a matter of using helmet, body armor, closed-down vehicles, traveling in convoys at speed,'' Whitty said. ``But the reality is, the more distanced you are from the local population, the more hostility you'll generate.''
British patrolling techniques developed in Northern Ireland emphasize four-man units, called ``bricks.'' The last man in each brick walks backward.
``Walking backwards is tiring, but it makes bloody good sense,'' Whitty said.
One key difference between U.S. and British troops could be cultural. Americans often expect a warm civilian welcome; the British harbor no such illusions.
``A lot of people from the U.S. get extremely hostile if they're not loved. British soldiers are pretty indifferent,'' Whitty said. ``Just about everyone in the world has hated the British military at one point in the last 200 years. So we start from a very strong position _ we presume we won't be liked.''