Christopher Bellamy: Why troops must still work closely with Iraqis

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Tuesday's attacks on British troops maintaining and building peace in Iraq were not only tragic, but were also a bitter and ironic blow at a critical time - "Phase 4" - of the operation.

Tuesday's attacks on British troops maintaining and building peace in Iraq were not only tragic, but were also a bitter and ironic blow at a critical time - "Phase 4" - of the operation.

The irony is that the six non-commissioned officers of the Royal Military Police who were killed were doing the very thing most Iraqis need and want: helping Iraq establish its own system of law and order by rebuilding and training its police force and thus accelerating the transition from foreign occupation to responsible indigenous government.

The only way to do that was to be there. The British soldiers, like so many over the past decades, became victims of the peace they were building.

It was widely predicted that the post-conflict, peace-building phase would be harder than winning the war itself. General Sir Michael Jackson, Chief of the General Staff, said as much before the war, and he was right.

Knee-jerk reactions must be avoided. There have been the inevitable comparisons between the "hard" approach of the Americans in the larger sector of Iraq which they control, and the "softly, softly" British approach. But there is nothing "soft" about the British approach. It is borne of more than 30 years' experience in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan. The US approach, which many see as intimidating, even culturally arrogant, has not been conspicuously successful. Until Tuesday, the British approach had done better. But the British occupy an area dominated by Shia Muslims who had been oppressed by Saddam, while the Americans have the more difficult areas: the "Sunni triangle", north of Baghdad, and Baghdad itself, replete with Saddam loyalists and Ba'athists.

Debate about whether the British should emulate the Americans and replace berets with helmets, put on armour and go everywhere in fours, misses the point. The British will be gathering intelligence, looking for the people who killed and attacked their troops, and trying to ensure they are not taken by surprise again.

You cannot rebuild a police force or an army without being very close to them. When the combat phase (Phase 3) ended with the collapse of the Iraqi army and Republican Guard in April, a "security gap" opened up. For days there was a shortage of troops trained in peace-keeping, or armed police, to take over in the US sector, and an unwillingness among the US forces to move outside their armoured box. The British handled this phase better, switching, almost instinctively, to peace support. Key to this process are units bridging the "security gap", military police and deployable, armed police forces.

If there is any consolation from these events, it is that the process of rebuilding law and order and government is under way. Soon, the Americans and British will start rebuilding the Iraqi army, who, alongside Iraqi police, are the right people to defend Iraq againstcriminals, extremists and terrorists. But doing that involves risk. And courage - maybe more courage than war.

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