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British soldiers at Basra checkpoint balance coalition's priorities

NEAR BASRA, Iraq—Gunfire sprayed across the road, forcing British soldiers to dive into ditches.

Frightened Iraqi civilians sat tight in their cars as a calm, boyish-faced British soldier pumped a round at Iraqi militia fighters on the roof of a munitions factory.

"Call this Machine Gun Alley," said a grinning Cpl. Richie Strickland of the First Battalion Irish Guards regiment as he crawled to see if the Iraqis would fire back.

Here at the furthermost coalition checkpoint into Basra, Iraq's besieged southern regional capital, British soldiers are fighting a familiar war.

Many are veterans of urban conflicts in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Kosovo, where having a light touch to win over skeptical civilians was as important as a heavy hand with the enemy.

The British have brought similar tactics, strategies and institutional knowledge to juggle the coalition's twin priorities: eradicate Saddam Hussein's militias and gain the trust and confidence of ordinary Iraqis. It's advice they're likely to impart to U.S. forces as they approach the outskirts of Baghdad.

"It is a balancing act. You're not going to win Basra unless you win the hearts and minds. So it is key," said Capt. Alex Cosby of the First Battalion Irish Guards. "But you have to remember you're at war. We have to be careful not to take the defensive posture."

The challenges of this balancing act can be seen at the concrete barriers of Machine Gun Alley.

Here, battle-hardened British soldiers can see Iraqi fighters holed up in the gray, blown-out buildings of the Bin Majid factory, a half-mile away.

They fire hand-held rocket-propelled grenades and semi-automatic guns at the soldiers virtually every day using "shoot and scoot" tactics. Other guerrillas on pickup trucks mounted with machine guns call in mortar strikes by cell phone from a nearby shantytown.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of cars and trucks flow in and out of Basra through the "VCP" or vehicle checkpoint. Smiling British soldiers check cars and politely frisk young men of fighting age. Women soldiers check Iraqi women.

But if the crowd gets unruly, the British soldiers get tough, yelling "Get back."

The goals of the checkpoint are to prevent weapons and other supplies from getting to the more than 1,000 of Saddam's paramilitary fighters in Basra. The British soldiers also want to stop them from attacking rear targets or blowing up bridges needed for the flow of U.S. troops and equipment to Baghdad.

As in Northern Ireland, the checkpoint has a "dead zone" where suspicious cars are checked by no more than two soldiers. The rest of the regiment is spread out. A suicide bomber could kill at most two soldiers.

There are several checkpoints along the highway. If a suspicious vehicle manages to get through one, soldiers can radio the next one to stop it.

This means, in theory, there's no need to shoot and possibly kill innocent civilians. That happened in Najaf on Monday when U.S. soldiers opened fire on a truck barreling through a checkpoint killing 11, including women and children.

"We'll shoot only if they use the car as a weapon going after us," said Guardsman Michael Charlton of the Irish Guards 2nd Company.

But it's almost impossible to detect the enemy. Iraqi fighters have shed uniforms for civilian clothes. Many civilians in Basra are being forced to fight the coalition forces at gunpoint, according to refugees and British commanders. And Saddam's Baath Party officials offer rewards to ordinary Iraqis to assassinate coalition soldiers.

So the men at Machine Gun Alley are always on alert. Intelligence changes every day.

One day they are on the lookout for new four-wheel drives and flashy cell phones used by the Saddam's elite paramilitary fighters. Another day it's beat-up pick-up trucks carrying tons of tomatoes.

"They'll do something, we catch on. They realize we catch on and then move on to something else," said Lt. William Hawley of the First Battalion Irish Guards.

Unlike Northern Ireland, where English is widely spoken, soldiers can't communicate well with locals, even with help from translators. Most are not familiar with Iraqi mannerisms and body language.

The British military has been delivering water, food and medicines. Recently they also have been passing out fliers to cars entering and leaving Basra. The fliers show an Iraqi and British soldier shaking hands with a caption that reads: "This time we won't abandon you. Be patient together we will win."

It is a reference to 1991 when Muslim Shiites in Basra revolted against Saddam Hussein, only to be crushed by his military when help from the United States did not arrive.

"People of Al Basrah. We are here to liberate the people of Iraq. Our enemy is the regime and not the people. We need your help to identify the enemy," the flier says.

"A lot of them are saying they don't want to take the leaflets," said Hawley of the First Battalion Irish Guards. "They are worried about what the fedayeen might do to them if they catch them holding on to them."

"The major problem is that people are not free to talk," said Ali Abdallah, 29, who was handed a flier from a soldier as he drove out of Basra. "People still don't believe that Saddam can disappear."

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

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