Monday, October 25, 2004

Instead of armored vehicles, the Dutch drive vehicles that leave them exposed to the people around them. To encourage interaction with local residents, they go bare-headed and are forbidden to wear mirror sunglasses. Making soldiers accessible and vulnerable to their surroundings increases their security, they contend. Making them inaccessible decreases it.

"You would lose contact with the people," said Lt. Col. Kees Matthijssen, the commander of the Dutch force in Iraq. "In fact, the support and the consent of the people is a form of protection. If you have good contact with the people, if it's easy to talk to the people, people always give you some information. You know what's in their minds, what they're thinking, what's worrying them."

Samawa, one of the quietest spots in Iraq outside the Kurdish north, is a world away from the lawlessness that has spread across Baghdad and other cities. What the Dutch face here cannot be compared with what American soldiers must deal with in the capital or in the Sunni triangle, where they are confronted daily with a deadly resistance.

Yet, perhaps unfairly, the Americans do get compared with the Dutch here, in a way that underscores how difficult it will be for Americans to win back some of the popular support they enjoyed after the fall of Saddam Hussein. American soldiers are not based here, but they regularly make short, though lasting, appearances. American convoys traveling the main highway between Baghdad and Kuwait force their way through Samawa's crowded main street at full speed and, fearful of becoming targets, do not stop even after causing fatal accidents, Dutch and Iraqi officials here say. Worried about car-bombers, American soldiers in armored vehicles point guns at drivers to keep cars away.

...Karim Hleibit al-Zayad, the police chief here, made a clear distinction between the Dutch and Americans: "The Dutch have tried seriously to understand our traditions. We do not view them as an occupying force, but a friendly one. The Americans are an occupying force. I agree they helped us get rid of the past regime, but they should not take away our dignity."

In Samawa, Chief Zayad and others here said, the American convoys represent the greatest affront to Iraqi dignity. The Dutch and Iraqis say the convoys indiscriminately hit private cars and pedestrians, treating Iraqis only as obstacles to be removed. A few weeks ago, one such convoy struck a car, killing two Iraqi passengers and injuring three, the Dutch said. The convoy never stopped.

Because of the convoys, "dislike is growing" for the Americans, Colonel Matthijssen said.

"Of course, an American is a different type of human than a Dutchman," the colonel said. "We have our own culture. But I think the Americans could have a way of operating with more respect and more understanding toward the population."

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