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"Uphill battle" to win Iraqi trust

By William Maclean

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KUWAIT (Reuters) - The U.S. and British war effort faces an uphill battle to win the trust of Iraqis after military planners failed to take sufficient account of Iraqis' deep fear of President Saddam Hussein, a British general says.

"Winning their trust is going to be an uphill battle in the short term," Major General Albert Whitley, who helped with preparations for the war with Iraq, told a news conference in Kuwait on Sunday.

"The Iraqi regime has for many years ruled and controlled its people by fear. That is something we did not fully comprehend... We did not appreciate what 12 years of fear can do to people," he said.

He was referring to the period since an uprising in the south after the 1991 Gulf War was crushed by Saddam when the United States withdrew its support for the rebellion.

"As our forces move in to liberate the country, it is not an environment they (Iraqis) can easily adjust to...They are waiting to see who hits them next," he said. "It's a mental environment I find it difficult to picture and comprehend."

Whitley is deputy commander of what the invading forces call post-hostilities operations, arranging the early stages of humanitarian relief and trying to create conditions where U.N. and other aid agencies can enter Iraq to feed and shelter civilians.

He was also involved in the planning of the war, in which winning the trust of ordinary Iraqis was a central assumption.

Another of the planners' expectations, U.S. commentators say, was that opposition to Saddam was so deeply entrenched that his government would quickly fall. U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney called Saddam's government "a house of cards".

Answering questions, Whitley acknowledged that many Iraqis had not so far put their faith in the invaders, apparently out of fear of reprisals by Saddam loyalists who attack civilians who show signs of welcoming U.S. or British troops.

An exiled Iraqi humanitarian official and scientist, Hussain al-Shahristani, has said the reported reprisals have revived memories of 1991 among Iraqis and sown fears that Washington lacks the stomach for the fight and may again abandon them.

Whitley said U.S. and British forces were having some success in starting to build trust with ordinary Iraqis but it was a gradual process.

"We do it by showing we are going unequivocally after the bad men, not after ordinary Iraqis, and by demonstrating bit by bit that we are going to give Iraq back to the Iraqi people," he said.

He said oil workers in the Rumailah oil field, for instance, had reported for work to invasion forces on Saturday and asked to be given tasks. Some schools had reopened for the first time in the 11-day-old conflict in areas controlled by U.S. or British forces, he added.


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