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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 March 2006, 07:22 GMT
Iraqis torn between fear and uncertainty
By Jane Corbin
BBC Panorama, Basra

British soldiers on patrol in Basra, southern Iraq

Three years ago, as British troops swept into Basra, in southern Iraq, the British were welcomed as liberators.

A group of Iraqis crowded around us - British journalists - to praise Tony Blair and broke into spontaneous applause.

The south had been ruthlessly oppressed and thousands of people had been killed by Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party apparatus after the attempted Shia uprising in 1991.

Today, the atmosphere on the streets has changed. I sensed that the majority of people are torn - they want the British to leave after three years of occupation but they are also fearful of what might happen when they go.

On 22 February, the day that sectarian violence swept the country following the attack by Sunni insurgents on the Shia Golden Shrine at Samarra, the Panorama team was trapped in the most exposed British base in Basra - right in the heart of the city.

British soldiers on patrol in Basra, southern Iraq
A voice came over the tannoy saying that the base was under attack

We had filmed with this unit, Zulu Company of the Royal Fusiliers, three years before when they took over a section of the city and supplied desperate people with water.

Now we could only watch as massive demonstrations, called by Shia religious leaders, began forming outside the walls of the base.

Major John Stott was under orders to keep a low profile but his men started preparing their riot gear. The unspoken fear was what might happen if the thousands of shocked and angry people outside turned on the British base.

In the event, the demonstration passed off peacefully if noisily - the banners railed against the Americans and Israelis but not the British.

Mutual respect

Iraqis here told us the British were still tolerated - even welcome in some quarters because they had generally behaved in a restrained way towards them and respected their local culture.

There had been some exceptions - the incident where soldiers had been filmed beating up Iraqi youths in the town of al-Amara had caused anger and political repercussions across the south.

But out on the streets of Basra on night patrol with Maj Stott and his team, I found no open hostility and local youths even chatted with the soldiers about British football.

The British soldiers were bound for the local police station where the aim was to try to get the police to go on a joint patrol.

It was a test of whether the police would abide by the boycott of the British, which the provincial council had instigated after the arrest of alleged corrupt elements in the Basra police force.

Maj Stott was encouraged when the local police agreed to join his soldiers but two minutes later a message was sent to say they had received orders from on high and the patrol was off.

These are the frustrations the British are experiencing three years on as new democratically elected leaders assert their right to rule the city.

Criminal gangs

In other ways my recent experience in Basra contrasted sharply with three years ago. In 2003, I had driven all over the city at will - welcome in almost all quarters.

Today, Westerners who value their own safety can only travel in armoured vehicles and helicopters.

The physical face of the city has hardly changed at all, stagnant water and filthy rubbish clog the streets
Key roads are now the haunt of criminal gangs intent on kidnap and there is the ever present danger of IEDs - improvised explosive devices - planted by militia elements who are the main opposition to the British in the south.

The physical face of the city has hardly changed at all, stagnant water and filthy rubbish clog the streets and there is extreme poverty in the Shia slums.

The water supply has improved but there are still electricity shortages. The infrastructure of Basra is wrecked and it will take huge capital investment and many years to improve it.

Iraq has the oil revenues to pay for it but so far lacks the efficient and clean governance that would make that possible.

Iraqis complain that corruption is still rife and the police force, hated in the Saddam Hussein years is still not a force they can trust.

The British have begun the process of drawing down their 8,000 strong force in the south. There will be 800 fewer by the end of May.

The big question is will there still be a need for the British army in the south in three years time?

The Iraqi Prime Minister, Ibrahim Jaafari told me that he could not ask the multinational forces to leave his country until the Iraqis were strong enough to protect themselves.

What happens to Basra and the south in the next three years is still very much an open question.

Bringing Our Boys Home?
18 Mar 06 |  Panorama
Old practices die hard in Basra
18 Mar 06 |  Panorama
In pictures: Iraq three years on
18 Mar 06 |  In Pictures
Interview: Ibrahim Jaafari
18 Mar 06 |  Panorama
'Hotbed of anti-British violence'
01 Mar 06 |  Panorama


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