Page last updated at 23:43 GMT, Tuesday, 28 April 2009 00:43 UK

Basra voices: The British presence

British soldiers on patrol in Basra in April 2009

By Alex Kleiderman
BBC News

As the UK operation in Basra draws to a close after six years, some of those whose lives have been affected look back at the period of the British military presence in the city.


Lt Col Mike Smith, 41, is the commander of the Army's Joint Helicopter Force in Basra.

Lt Col Mike Smith [Pic: Ministry of Defence]
Lt Col Mike Smith has seen the highs and lows of life in Basra

He returned to the city in mid-March, after previously having briefly been there in 2008 and spending four months on a tour in 2004.

He describes the situation in 2004 as "stark".

"That time was one of the lowest ebbs in the campaign. You had the perception that people were surviving and getting by with very little.

"Now Basra is becoming secure and prosperous and it feels like a different country. The optimism is tangible.

"We fly around at a low level and we can see that people are really living now. From the air we can see electricity pylons, with the wires connected, and people have their lights on.

"More people are out fishing and farming. The crew in our helicopters, who man the guns and keep a lookout, spend a lot of their time waving back at the locals.

"It's a completely different situation to the one in 2004 and to see it having come out the other side is fantastic.

"The Iraqis are in control and leading the operations now, and there's a private satisfaction that we've done the job that we were asked to do."


Corporal Thomas Walker, of D-Company, 5th Battalion The Rifles (5 Rifles), was among the first British soldiers into Basra in 2003.

In August 2006, during his second tour, close friend Corporal Matt Cornish was killed in a mortar attack on the UK base at the Old State Building.

Cpl Thomas Walker
Cpl Thomas Walker can imagine Basra becoming a holiday destination

On his third tour of Iraq, he says the changes in six years were evident.

Cpl Walker, 25, from Falmouth, Cornwall, said in the opening weeks of the campaign, he was living out of armoured vehicles.

"We had to live on rations for two months straight. It was very emotional. Back then there was no air conditioning. The kit was nowhere as good as it is now."

The Ministry of Defence handed over control of the Basra Palace base to the Iraqis in August 2007.

Speaking from the Contingency Operating Base at Basra airfield, Cpl Walker said the city was now a "completely different place".

He added: "I'm not going to say it's 100% safe, because nowhere really is.

"It's getting there. It's getting to be a half-decent country to live in, I can imagine in 10 or 20 years' time, people coming here on holiday."


Sara Salam (not her real name) has been working for a human rights organisation in Basra since 2003.

"We got many good things after the British Army came to the city such as feeling freedom in many ways," she said.

But Ms Salam says there are differing opinions among residents on the impact of the British presence.

Before 2003 I was able go outside my house whenever I wanted... but now, I never go anywhere alone
Sara Salam

Some people have "good things" to say as it has led to financial opportunities which have helped them to realise their "dreams".

But she added that others "will say bad things because in their view the British represent the sadness and stealing" of Iraq and "thousands of people can't find a job".

According to Ms Salam, 32, personal safety is still a concern for women despite statistics showing security has improved dramatically in the past year.

"Before 2003 I was able to go outside my house whenever I wanted... but now, I never go anywhere alone."

Another Basra resident, teacher Um Mahmood, 58, sees things differently.

"Women are now able to go out until late without fearing for their lives," she said.

In the future, they are going to be remembered positively because, essentially, they weren't bad people and were relatively helpful

Um Mahmood, teacher

"They are able to work in various sectors such as education and healthcare and they are doing so in increasingly large numbers."

But Ms Mahmood says British efforts to bring the situation in Basra under control was "neither very positive nor was it negative".

She said the situation improved after responsibility for security was taken on by UK-trained Iraqi forces in late 2007, which also coincided with a ceasefire between Shia militias.

"Prior to 2003, life was very difficult even for families with multiple sources of income. Salaries are very good now and anyone with appropriate qualifications is able to work," she added.

"When the British came to Basra I was apprehensive because they were foreigners imposing their authority in our country.

"In the future, they are going to be remembered positively because, essentially, they weren't bad people and were relatively helpful."

Interview with Ms Mahmood conducted by


Michelle Lennon has seen her husband embark on two tours of Iraq.

Michelle Lennon
Michelle Lennon tries not to let herself worry about her husband's safety

In 2003, when Warrant Officer 2 Sean Lennon was first posted to Basra, coalition action in Iraq had only recently ended and unrest in the city was rife.

By the time of his second tour in November 2008 as a member of 5th Battalion The Rifles (5 Rifles), a reduced UK troop presence was based on the outskirts of the city and responsibility for security handed to Iraqis.

"In 2003, we didn't know what to expect," Mrs Lennon said.

"Now you tend to take it more in your stride because it's become the norm for troops to be sent away to Afghanistan or Iraq."

The couple, from Colchester, Essex, who have two daughters, have also found it easier to keep in touch.

In 2003, her husband was in reconnaissance and two weeks could go by before Mrs Lennon, 32, heard from him.

WO2 Sean Lennon
WO2 Sean Lennon has undertaken two tours in Iraq

"He is now able to telephone most evenings if he wants to and we send e-mails almost every day," she said.

"This time it's been harder for the children because they understand what's going on. They realise he is going away for six months at a time," she added.

And living with safety concerns?

"I'm one of these people who will not worry until something happens," Mrs Lennon said.

"If I did, I would think about it constantly. Some people I know do that and it plays on their mind constantly and gets them down."


Andreas Carleton-Smith, director of Iraq business for international security consultants Control Risks, has visited the country several times a year since 2003.

He says flying in by aircraft in the years following the conflict was like being in a "serious warzone".

"In Baghdad and Basra now, you are arriving at perfectly functioning international airports, complete with duty free shops and such like," he said.

Companies like mine are going around freely in Basra in a way one would not have envisaged a couple of years ago
Andreas Carleton-Smith, security consultant

Improvements to roads and infrastructure are also visible.

However, Mr Carleton-Smith said Iraq suffered from bureaucracy and corruption and remained "extremely dangerous".

Security in Basra remained "fragile", he said.

But he added: "Companies like mine are going around freely in Basra in a way one would not have envisaged a couple of years ago."

In the aftermath of the 2003 conflict, Control Risks won a contract to provide bodyguards for civilians working with the coalition.

More recently, it has been advising companies pursuing business in Iraq including in the southern oil fields near Basra.


In June 2003, a month after major combat operations had been declared over, six members of the Royal Military Police undertaking training and reconstruction duties were killed by an armed mob in a police station in Al Majar al-Kabir, north of Basra.

John Hyde said the courage of the armed forces ''tended to be forgotten''

Among the dead were Lance Corporal Ben Hyde, 23, from Northallerton in North Yorkshire, and Corporal Simon Miller, 21, from Washington, Tyne and Wear.

"What tends to get forgotten is the courage displayed, not just by Ben and his comrades but by our armed forces generally," L/Cpl Hyde's father, John, said.

"If the Iraqi security forces are capable of maintaining the security of the country themselves with a democratic government, that's what Ben and the lads died for."

Mr Hyde has interviewed Ben's friends for a proposed book about his unit's achievements in Iraq.

And in 2006, he set up the Ben Hyde Memorial Trust.

More than £30,000 has been raised for the Royal Military Police Central Benevolent Fund and community projects in Northallerton, whose residents turned out in force to honour L/Cpl Hyde at his funeral.

John Miller, meanwhile, is still asking questions about the British mission in Al Majar al-Kabir that led to his son's death.

John Miller continues to ask questions about his son's death in Iraq

"There was no planning, there was no afterthought to the whole thing," he said.

"They stuck these guys out in what was basically the Wild West and just left them.

"They were screaming out all the time for comms [communications]. 'Can I have some. Can I have a mobile phone to take with us. Can we have more ammunition'.

"We still don't know to this day what happened in that police station.

"The only people who know are the actual murderers. And of course on the other side of it.... from the military point of view, who was responsible for putting... [them] into that position?"

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