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British Army officer says soldiers prepared, willing to fight

CAMP COMMANDO, Kuwait—British troops will be disappointed if Prime Minister Tony Blair doesn't send them into Iraq, and they continue to gird for war while he makes up his mind, a British Army officer said Thursday.

Lt. Col. Jamie Martin also said British commanders had been urging their U.S. counterparts to scale back their attack plans against Iraqi troops and infrastructure, an approach that American officials have dubbed "shock and awe."

"We will inherit, in the reconstruction phase, the effects of what will be done in the operational phase," Martin said, recalling a quote from the poet Virgil: "Spare the weak and disarm the strong."

Martin recalled that during NATO's air campaign in the Serbian province of Kosovo, U.S. airplanes knocked out several bridges that had to be rebuilt later to help the region's economic recovery.

"It's that sort of thing that we're seeking to avoid," he said, adding that "as a result of discussions we now have a common approach and there are ongoing discussions" about new targets as they come up.

The 25,000 British ground troops in Kuwait are expected to play a crucial role in the early hours of any war, seizing the southern Iraqi city of Basra in hopes of demoralizing President Saddam Hussein's troops.

But Blair faces a strong majority of Britons and a sizable minority in his Labor Party who oppose war with Iraq without a new U.N. Security Council resolution, which France has promised to veto.

Martin, the senior liaison between British ground troops in Kuwait and the Americans' 55,000-member 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, seemed unperturbed by the political brouhaha back in London.

"For the moment we are waiting the outcome of political developments and continuing training with the 1st MEF," he said during an interview with American journalists based at IMEF headquarters at Camp Commando.

"We'd like public support. I think we also believe that when the bullets start flying our people will get behind what (the British newspaper) The Sun calls `Our Boys,' capital O, capital B."

British troop morale hasn't been affected by the doubts over Blair's decision, he added, although "the reaction of the average soldier would be disappointment that he's not going to be able to do what he's trained to do."

Asked how a British pullout would affect U.S. war plans, he shrugged and said, "I'm sure that planning is going on for that contingency, as I'm sure that planning is going on for a number of contingencies."

IMEF officials declined comment on how American plans might change.

The Britons' 1 UK Division includes more than 100 Challenger 2 tanks from the 7th Armored Regiment, the 3rd Royal Marine Commando Brigade and the 16th Air Assault Regiment.

In an unusual arrangement, 1 UK Division chief Maj. Gen. Robin Brims is under the command of IMEF chief Lt. Gen. James Conway, but in turn has been given command of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, a heavily mechanized American unit usually made up of about 2,200 fighters.

For the British, occupying Basra might bring back memories of their last military bases in Iraq, seized with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and abandoned in 1958.

British troops are planning to tidy up war cemeteries in Iraq once any fighting is over. "There's certainly a sense of history, that the British have been there before," he said.

Martin said the coordination between British and Marine forces so far had gone smoothly, with problems limited to "low level interoperability stuff." Asked for an example, he shot back, "Language."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.