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17th March 2004

Basra by Mike Thompson.

When Saddam Hussein was toppled from power few cheered louder than the people of Basra in Southern Iraq.

This is not surprising given that this city, which traces its origins back to the seventh century, has never been a fan of Saddam Hussein. Its majority of Shia Muslim population rose up in rebellion in 1991 against Saddam and his Baath party but were ruthlessly crushed.

But it would be a mistake to think that Basra is a relaxed and friendly home from home for the 10,000 British troops stationed in the region. Although the army has an official policy of patrolling the streets with soft hats, hand shakes and smiles the reality is very different. Armoured land rovers patrol the street and helmeted soldiers eye passers by through the sights of their machine guns. It has not stopped business booming in the high street but everyone here is nervous.

In recent months there have been numerous attacks on British patrols and their bases from men using AK47 machine guns, toting men, often from passing cars. Small mines are being hidden in sand dunes by the road sides, or even in the carcases of dead animals. Soldiers are being hit by petrol bombs and rocks. Even car bombs, which have long been common in the capital Baghdad, are being found here too. Violent car-jackings are also common and few civilians dare to venture out after dark.

No one is taking any chances. Hotels commonly employ teams of armed guards to protect their guests, along with hospitals, offices and petrol stations. Even schools are not exempt. On entering a secondary school in Northern Basra I was confronted by a man with a machine gun who stands there every day checking all who come in. The measure is in response to a rising tide of kidnapping in the city which is often aimed at children.

Some locals look back to the days of Saddam Hussein with nostalgia. Not because they miss him, that they certainly don’t. It’s the memory of a time when they could walk safely on the streets that they remember so fondly. Those who fell foul of Saddam’s regime suffered terrible consequences but others could enjoy an illusion of peace and security.

The biggest worry here is what will happen when coalition troops finally pull out. Power is due to handed over to the country’s interim government on June the 30th this year. From that date responsibility for security issues will be passed on to the local police and the recently created ICDC or Iraqi Civil Defence Corps. The latter group is currently being trained by British troops who are expected to be withdrawn from the city in the relatively near future.

The hope is that when they go, the people of Basra, along with the rest of Iraq, will be ready to take care of themselves. Yet as the tide of bombings and terrorist attacks continues and tensions between the nation’s Shia and Sunni Muslim sects grow, many locals are not very sure that they will.

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