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Iraq: British Public Concerned By Attacks On Troops, But Against Leaving

Continued attacks against coalition forces in Iraq have citizens in the U.K. concerned about the fate of the roughly 10,000 British soldiers still based there. Still, many Britons say they want Western troops and civilian administrators to "finish the job" and stay in Iraq until peace is restored and a democratic government is in place. Experts, however, say that support could quickly drain away if attacks on soldiers continue.

London, 22 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. military reports that an American soldier was killed today when his convoy was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and small arms fire northwest of Baghdad.

The latest assault brings to 45 the number of coalition troops killed by hostile fire since U.S. President George W. Bush declared an end to major combat operations on 1 May.

Six of the 45 were British troops. An additional four Britons have been killed in that time in non-combat incidents. The mounting death toll -- combined with the grueling certainty that troops will remain in Iraq for months and possibly years to come -- has shaken the British public.

Many Britons, however, still say they believe coalition troops should remain in Iraq until the country is secure and operating under a democratically elected government. But experts say that attitude could change if attacks on coalition troops continue -- and if it is discovered the British government exaggerated its case for war.

Neil Partrick is an analyst with the Middle East and Africa section of the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in London.

"I think the main problem that the British public is having is over the question of the extent to which the arguments in favor of the military campaign against Iraq were based on entirely sound reasoning. And this obviously relates to the challenges that the coalition forces are having on the ground," Partrick says.

Partrick says if lives continue to be lost, it will, in his words, "raise increasing question marks about the arguments that were marshaled in favor of the war." On the other hand, he says, the outcome of the Anglo-American occupation is still uncertain.

"It is a very mixed picture. I know the U.S. is starting to argue that rather than entirely isolated incidents, there may be some regional co-ordination [behind the attacks]," he says. "Given the relative organization of some of the strikes and relative sophistication of some of them, it is hard to imagine that they are entirely isolated individuals. And of course, the strong possibility that there may be elements of [Iraq's] Special Republican Guard and some of the intelligence and security apparatus of the former regime behind it, may encourage the idea that there is some coordination."

Partrick's comments reflect last week's admission by U.S. General John Abizaid, the commander of military operations in Iraq, that the war was continuing as a "classical guerrilla-type campaign." No major troop pullouts are expected soon -- something that means a further strain on Britain, which is spending some $100 million a month maintaining its 10,000 troops in Iraq.

Partrick says British public opinion on the troop presence may shift according to further developments on the ground. He presents two possible scenarios.

"If there is some stabilization of the situation, and there are indications at least of some political progress, with the dialogue between the coalition authorities and some of the opposition groups, then I think this may contribute to an improved situation -- including in security terms, which may, of course, help to take some of the heat out of the concern. But, I think in a situation with security continuing to deteriorate, then the justification for the war and for the ongoing presence may be in some doubt," he says.

RFE/RL spoke to London residents about their opinions on the war. One man, a 34-year-old accountant, said the situation in Iraq is too insecure for troops to pull out now.

"Well, I think we've got ourselves into a position now where we should not have been there in the first place, but we're a little wrapped up in it all. So it is difficult to withdraw, unless you've created some more security. And that's lacking, so I don't know. Now that they're in there it's very difficult," he said.

One woman, a receptionist in her 60s, put it more bluntly, saying Britain is now paying the price for failing to do an adequate job during the 1991 Gulf War.

"We've made that mistake before. We pulled out too quickly, didn't we? I mean, I think [the troops] should stay there for a while to get things sorted out, God willing. I know that these few loyalists are still hanging [around]. I think that we are trying to do a good job out there. I know it's taking a long time. You know, I think both the Americans and [we] should stay there a bit longer. I know it is not very nice with the troops. They want to get home, but if we pull out too quick, what's going to happen?" she says.

A 51-year-old banker said it is the responsibility of the Anglo-American troops and the Coalition Provisional Authority to guarantee whatever security they can while the fledgling Iraqi Governing Council takes the first steps toward building a self-sufficient democratic government. Three representatives from the council are in New York today to meet with United Nations officials, who are urging a quick restoration of Iraqi sovereignty.

"If the country is going to deteriorate into a state of civil war, then the troops should stay," the banker says. "If there is any sense that power can be handed as soon as possible to some form of stable government, then they should stay as long as is required to do that."

One Londoner, a 34-year-old lawyer and a Muslim, cast doubt on the widespread belief that the continued guerrilla attacks on coalition troops are exclusively the work of armed loyalists of Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath Party regime.

"What I find surprising, as a British Muslim who is a liberal, is that I cannot see any evidence to actually verify that these forces do actually support Saddam Hussein. What's to say that they are not actually there just protesting about occupation by foreign forces that are being dictatorial, in their view?" he says. "What I find disappointing is media reporting -- insofar as speaking to friends out in the Middle East, of all nationalities -- their reporting there characterizes these individuals as freedom fighters. Yet the reporting here characterizes these individuals as people who support Saddam Hussein."