BASRA, Iraq – As we drive to meet the Merlin helicopter, our vehicle displays a British flag on the dash. We pass teams of British soldiers at Basra Air Station as they conduct morning runs, preparing for the next combat, perhaps only hours away.
Numerous British units are stationed in Basra, including the Queens Royal Lancers, whose motto is “Death or Glory.” There is no assurance of Glory. I spent most of April 2007 with the Brits, which turned out to have been the most deadly month for British forces since the beginning of the war. In April, our British friends have, on a per capita basis, lost two or even three times more troops than we have. We lost about a hundred; the Brits lost about a dozen. The word “about” is not used to suggest a casual callousness about the fallen, but for a more specific conveyance: persons who are listed as wounded in action often later succumb.
While progress in Anbar is robust enough to make mainstream news reports, down in southern Iraq, the enemy is resurging. They are well-resourced, resilient and intelligent, and capable of landing hard punches. They recently “shot down” a C-130 with IEDs planted by the landing strip. The enemy may be good, but American and British forces are much better. On my previous two missions with the British Army, 2 Rifles and the next day the Duke of Lancaster Regiment, they killed roughly 40 enemy, and the Brits did so without sustaining a scratch. On the next mission with British forces, the enemy would successfully engage us, taking two British soldiers.
As the British increase their forces in Afghanistan, they are drawing down in Iraq. Although the drawdown in Iraq is based on pragmatism, the enemy apparently is attempting to create the perception of a military rout. So while the British reduce their forces in southern Iraq, they are coming under heavier fire and the enemy makes claims of driving “the occupiers” out.
In reality, the Brits were about to transfer authority over the Maysan Province to the Iraqi government. Thus, the day’s purpose, although seemingly more ceremonial in nature, was to counterpunch in the perception war, by focusing on the progress being made by the Iraqi Security Forces in the region. Some of the biggest battles in Iraq today are being fought not with bombs and bullets, but with cameras and keyboards. For whatever reasons – and there are many – today, when western media is most needed here, it’s nearly gone.
One by one, the 18 provinces of Iraq are being turned over to the Iraqis. The big event for today was the handover of Maysan Province to Iraqi control. Media were all invited. Dozens of reporters came from places as far apart as Tehran and Los Angeles, though the few western journalists would easily fit into a single helicopter. And that Merlin helicopter would fly us from Basra Air Station to FOB Sparrowhawk where the ceremony was to occur.
Flying in Iraq can be an adventure. The enemy has surface-to-air missiles. I was present in Mosul when American forces captured more than two dozen such missiles, and I recall a different day, rolling on a mission in Baghdad, when a radio announced that there was another “Fallen Angel.” Minutes later came another call. No survivors.
Briitish and American commanders readily say that those who were previously seen as liberators are now increasingly perceived as occupiers. Some of the shift in perception follows merely from being here so long that our moves are increasingly likely to be interpreted negatively. Though I have seen British and American soldiers treating Iraqis with respect and kindness – often putting their own lives at risk to reduce danger to Iraqis – the simple act of moving from point A to B often creates frictions, even when we are moving by means of the smallest possible footprint, in this instance by flying.
Smaller helicopters often fly very low using maneuverability as cover. Larger aircraft usually fly a little higher, and rely more on countermeasures to foil missiles. Countermeasures can be seen activating from helicopters over Baghdad every single day. This is no secret: Millions of Iraqis must see the flares popping out of aircraft to foil surface to air missiles. Yet, the countermeasures often seem to pop for no apparent reason. No missile is tracking us. Pilots say that the sensors still can be foiled by a glint off the water, or a refinery gas fire, for instance.
Near misses like this are one of the faces of that ugly part of war that our American and British commanders keep talking about. These are moments when, with no ill-intentions whatsoever, we go from being liberators to occupiers. I’ve been with American forces when we accidentally killed the wrong people. I’ve also seen American commanders, and now British, go to nearly ridiculous measures to avoid innocent loss of life. But sometimes, despite their heroic efforts, it still happens.
Perhaps the women in the field below us thought we shot at them. Maybe the perception for miles around would be that helicopters swooped down and fired missiles at women in the fields. This perception of being occupiers is largely why British officers insist that it’s time to reduce their own footprint in Southern Iraq, and concentrate on Afghanistan where the fight is more serious for British forces.
Michael Yon is an independent journalist and former Green Beret. His dispatches from Iraq appear exclusively on FOXNews.com. Click to read Yon's online magazine MichaelYon-online.com.