by David Axe & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & hadows are growing long on the afternoon of Oct. 1, when British Army Captain Steve Morte, 39, strolls onto a garden courtyard of a decaying Saddam-era palace-turned-British base in Basra, a sweltering city of 2 million people in southern Iraq. In one sweaty hand, he clutches a government-issued receipt book. In the other, $25,000 cash in a soggy yellow envelope. His grip on the money tightens as he approaches two Iraqi men sitting on a bench, for they are ... or were ... the enemy.
But dealing with erstwhile enemies -- and tolerating cultural mores that seem somehow wrong to Westerners -- is critical to creating a sustainable Iraq out of the bloody morass in this divided country. Ultimately, Iraqis must govern themselves, and they'll do it in their own ways. Increasingly, in the conservative, tribal south, British occupiers are making peace with an emerging Iraq that looks nothing like the United States or Great Britain, but is secure and sustainable all the same.
Morte forces a very believable smile and greets the men in Arabic. They spring to their feet to embrace him. Pleasantries duly exchanged, everyone sits and Morte gets down to business. The Iraqis -- one the son of a powerful sheik in the dangerous Qarmat Ali neighborhood of Basra -- hold an $80,000 contract, issued by the Brits using U.S. reconstruction funds, to repair street curbs ruined by decades of neglect and by more recent attention by British armored vehicles. Before he can hand over this latest payment, Morte says, he needs proof that curbs are actually getting repaired. So the sheik's son hands over photos of his work, and Morte pays them the requisite attention.
But this isn't about curbs. Not really. Several British soldiers have died in Qarmat Ali, victims of the area's xenophobic, deeply religious and heavily armed Shi'ite residents and the armed wings of the local religious parties. Ideally, the city's native police force would keep the peace in Qarmat Ali, but cops here are corrupt "on an industrial scale," according to one British officer, and "infiltrated by special interest groups" -- i.e., militias and murder gangs -- according to another. The resulting three years of lawlessness have been too long, and now the coalition is eager to retake the neighborhood.
That means winning some short-term goodwill, just enough to get a sizeable British force into Qarmat Ali in order to jump-start some major, long-term reconstruction projects while purging the local police force, "sorting the sheep from the goats," in the words of 41-year-old Lt. Col. Simon Winkworth, who overseas Iraqi police reform for the British Army.
Hence the curb project. That $80,000 will employ as many as 50 men for several months, hopefully creating a lot of goodwill in a neighborhood where unemployment hovers around 50 percent. "Buying a little consent" is how Morte describes his mission. After he hands the cash to the eager Iraqis, Morte casually mentions that British forces are considering conducting operations in Qarmat Ali. "Will we be welcome?"
The sheik's son seems to ponder the question. He nods. Through his interpreter, he says, "The sheiks in the area are very happy because you've done good work here." By which he means that he has done good work there -- and the Brits just paid for it. But in impoverished southern Iraq, resource-rich but desperately in need of capital, a little money goes a long way. And victory here certainly can be bought, in part, if local residents will just stop shooting long enough for the Brits to open their U.S.-filled wallets.
Morte lets himself smile just a little. For months he's been plugging away at more than 200 small projects employing thousands of Baswaris, drawing on an allotment of $100 million in U.S. funds, slowly turning attitudes in favor of an increased British presence, laying the groundwork for a major push into the city that Morte's commanders hope will open the final chapter in the occupation of southern Iraq.
At the same time that Morte is plying formerly hostile Baswaris with cash, a hundred miles north in barren Maysan province, maverick British Army Lt. Col. David Labouchere is leading a small force of Land Rovers armed with 7.62-millimeter machine guns in a mad dash across the soggy desert. His mission: to patrol the long marshy border with Iran for weapons smugglers and infiltrating foreign extremists.
It ain't easy. Maysan is far from anything. It's hot. It's alternately too wet and too dusty. The scorpions are aggressive. And the locals "hate anyone who isn't a Marsh Arab ... unless you come bearing gifts."
So 43-year-old Labouchere bears a lot of gifts. Every time he stops to chat with local sheiks, his troops hand out soccer balls and bottles of water to grabby children. If he passes by a stranded motorcyclist short on gasoline on some remote highway, he stops his whole convoy to offer help. And whenever possible, he brings along a military surgeon to look after Maysan's sick kids and pregnant women.
But the most important gift he bears is a subtle one. More than most commanders, Labouchere appreciates the people he polices. "This is a very volatile, armed society -- old-fashioned to a feudal extent. Tribal influences affect everything we do here. And there's an Iranian link whether we like it or not," since tribes have married across that artificial border for centuries.
The problem with previous British commanders in Maysan, Labouchere says, was that they ignored local cultural factors as they plotted their campaigns against smugglers and foreign infiltrators. Instead of darting across the desert in fleeting patrols, they operated from a big permanent base that was an irritating symbol of foreign occupation to proud natives. Instead of allying with local tribes, making them the eyes and ears of the relatively small British force, previous commanders arrested tribesmen nearly indiscriminately just for doing what tribesmen have always done: carrying weapons and solving tribal disputes with shows of arms.
"You have to be and think as an Arab -- that's not a bad thing," Labouchere says. With his deeply tanned skin, piercing eyes and cloth headdress, the colonel certainly looks the part. And he acts it, too. After two uninterrupted months in the desert, Labouchere "has gone completely native," according to one British officer. Meaning he placidly accepts a certain level of internal fighting in Maysan so long as the cross-border gun-running and foreign infiltrations stop. And with the tribes increasingly free to (violently) govern themselves under Labouchere's benevolent, hands-off occupation, Maysanians are more tolerant of their British "guests," more confident in their own self-governance and more willing to do their part to secure the border.
The end result, now two months into his roving desert command? The price of a black market AK-47 has quadrupled. Rocket prices have jumped by a factor of six. Attacks on British forces are down and foreign investment is up in this once-neglected province. "I suspect a lack of supply," Labouchere says in his measured cadence, referring to a dearth of the illegal weapons that empower insurgents and terrorists. "We are making a huge difference here."
Back in Basra on Oct. 2, 27-year-old Corporal Stacey Jackson leads a section of Royal Military Police to an Iraqi police station. This is the earliest phase of that big push into Basra for which Morte has been preparing the ground. But those expecting a dramatic, heavily armed assault are disappointed. The Brits' bold new plan hinges not on firepower, but on a lot of paperwork at Iraqi police stations.
In a backpack, Jackson carries stacks of exams, registration forms and a digital camera. Smiling and waving her way past a phalanx of slouching cops who openly ogle the pretty, blue-eyed blonde, she installs her team in a room whose only features are a ticking ceiling fan, a weathered desk and a rusting naked bed frame. Through an interpreter, she orders the hundreds of Iraqi cops milling around to line up and see her one at a time. She reaches into the backpack and starts testing the police.
"There's a perception of deteriorating security in Basra," says British Army spokesman Major Charlie Burbridge. That perception, based on widespread reports of massive police corruption and "death squads" in police vehicles murdering "anyone suspected of association with multi-national forces," has scared off the major regional investors that are the real prerequisite to eventual economic self-sufficiency in southern Iraq.
The Baswari police are powerless in most neighborhoods. Where they possess any power at all, it's as thugs, thieves and murderers.
Reforming the police force will go a long way towards reassuring investors and putting Iraq back on track to security. But how do you reform a police force for which bribes and impromptu "fees" are an old way of life? "What is [police] corruption?" Burbridge asks rhetorically. "Iraqis don't mind paying small 'fines' to Iraqi cops."
Burbridge proposes that reforming the Iraqi police is not a matter of enforcing Western-style ethics in regards to unauthorized fines, but simply a matter of weeding out the potential murderers so that Baswaris aren't actively afraid of their own cops. Meanwhile, coalition forces and prospective investors should consider periodic shakedowns by police as akin to tipping at restaurants. The bottom line, Burbridge says, is having realistic expectations.
His commander concurs: "We have to accept that a good district police is present, engaged ... but different" than a Western police force, says Brigadier James Everard, senior British commander in Basra.
But there's still the matter of identifying those "goats," as Winkworth calls the worst cops. The first step is to conduct a full census of the Basra police force, recording names and backgrounds, registering weapons and shooting mug shots for permanent files. Next, there's a literacy test to see who's even capable of reading laws and attending training courses.
Watching two Iraqi cops openly reading each other's answers on their written exams, Jackson laughs -- and demonstrates her own growing appreciation of Iraqi culture.
She says that, anticipating widespread cheating, she brought 10 different versions of the test.
David Axe is a freelance writer and the author of the graphic novel War Fix. He can be reached at [email protected]