The 2,500 Marines of U.S. 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit headed north to catch up with the bulk of the U.S. 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in confronting the Iraqi Republican Guard outside Baghdad, while the British Marines of 3rd Commando Brigade joined the British 7th Armored Brigade in dealing almost exclusively with pacifying Basra.
Based on reports from southern Iraq, and from defense sources in Britain, the amicable split has not come too soon.
"I have nothing against the U.S. Marine Corps at all," said a senior British Army officer based in England, "but they do lack subtlety."
Basra, according to reports from the area, is on the verge of a major internal uprising against Saddam Hussein's Baath Party leadership, and the British military's three decades of experience in dealing with guerrilla actions and civil populations in Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Kosovo and Kabul is considered of particular value compared to the virile ethos of overwhelming power traditional to the U.S. Marine Corps.
The Marines' tanks, strike aircraft, helicopters and hovercraft dramatically increased British firepower when the British Marines and 7th Armored Brigade 'Desert Rats' struck out from Kuwait last week. But as conventional open-front war-fighting started to disintegrate into messy mop-up operations and guerrilla warfare around the port of Umm Qasr, al-Zubayr and Basra, the British began to find the Marines' tactics more exuberant, if not counterproductive, than the situation appeared to warrant.
After witnessing a group of U.S. Marines pour mortar shells, anti-tank missiles and heavy rifle and machine gun fire into a house building at Umm Qasr, destroying the building and those on either side, a British Royal Marine officer was heard by a television reporter muttering: "How to make friends and influence people."
For the past few weeks the 15th MEU has been under the direct command of Britain's 3 Commando Brigade, the first time since World War II that a U.S. unit has been commanded by a British officer. Senior officers say they have been delighted, though some U.S. Marines have reportedly written home to say they did not join up to be under foreign command in battle.
Reports of Saddam's Fedayeen dressing in civilian clothes and opening fire on coalition troops has tempered any British criticism of the Marines, and their strong caution in dealing with civilians has appeared understandable for an American military which knows it is a priority target for enemies around the world.
But peacekeeping is still not quite an approved word in the U.S. military lexicon, and while Basra does not yet come under that heading, operational commander Gen. Tommy Franks appears content to think the British are quite capable of dealing with the city of 1.5 million on their own.
Apart from the differences of approach Central Command appears persuaded that the British may be seen as less controversial than the Americans, who are still blamed by the Shia population for abandoning them when they rose up against Saddam after the first Gulf War. Britain, on the other hand, is a former quasi-colonial power whose influence in the basic administrative and physical infrastructure of Basra is still apparent.
Tuesday night British troops, aided by SAS forces in the city, were encouraging locals to point out the Baathists in the city, and their military locations. When one Fedayeen unit fired a mortar against rioting locals in the city, British mortar locating radar called in an artillery strike, which destroyed the mortar. Air strikes later destroyed the headquarters of the local Baath Party.
The British Army's destruction of a column of 25 or more Iraqi tanks seen leaving Basra Tuesday may have encouraged the locals, or elements of the regular 51st Division, to be bolder against the remaining Saddam supporters. But it may also be that reports of the pending reopening of Umm Qasr port to much-needed humanitarian aid has encouraged them to take action now.
It appears likely that British forces will have to enter Basra to establish some form of control on the city. The manner in which it will be done is expected to send a message across Iraq that the allies really are there as liberators, not occupiers.
As the U.S. Marines hurry north to confront the Republican Guard, and U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair meet to discuss how to tackle Baghdad the right message from Basra may do as much to end the war as plans for the U.S. forces to enter Baghdad.