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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 April 2006, 08:12 GMT 09:12 UK
Living in a state of fear
By Lisa Mitchell
BBC News website in Basra, southern Iraq

An internal US embassy report on security in Iraq concluded that the situation in the southern city of Basra is every bit as bad as it is in cities further north.

Once considered a "safe zone", the oil-rich governorate is increasingly dangerous for its citizens and the British troops guarding it.

Interpreter hiding his identity
Iraqi interpreters wear balaclavas to avoid being identified by the police

Businessman Mohammad Hassan was driving to a party in Basra with a colleague when they were stopped by two policemen and hauled out of their car.

Mohammad was taken to what he was told was the ministry of information, strung up with his arms above his head and beaten for four hours.

He says there was no reason for it and that he is lucky to be alive.

The US report, leaked to the New York Times, concluded there was "a high level of militia activity including infiltration of local security forces" in the city. "Smuggling and criminal activity continues unabated," it added.

The fear of being snatched off the streets weighs heavily on people in Basra.

The armed militias which operate in the area are volatile and, to many citizens, the police are not much better.

Mohammad doesn't trust the city's police force and thinks that the majority of officers are corrupt.

If you call the police here you don't know what will happen - they could come and kill you

The British army, which is responsible for security in the southern region, estimates only a small percentage cause trouble.

But the suspicion that the majority cannot be trusted is leading to a climate of fear in the city. It feels as if Saddam Hussein never left.

Children have to be home before dark; kidnappings are frequent; locals have to watch what they say in front of their neighbours.

It is suspected that militias linked to political parties have been recruited to the police force and are running their own personal fiefdoms in the uniform.

Intelligence database

The Army is working to root out these elements which it says pose a threat to its security and has set up a database of intelligence on who they are and who they work for.

But their progress is not being helped by a falling out with Basra provincial council which controls the city's police.

The council withdrew its co-operation with the Army after video pictures of soldiers apparently beating locals, taken in 2004, were printed by the News of the World last September.

The Basra police have not worked with them since, including dropping out of training programmes backed by the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

Woman reading News of the World
The News of the World showed images from the video

In order for co-operation to resume, the council is demanding the Army pull out of its bases, reduce city centre patrols and release the 56 or so people it has detained for being a threat to its own security.

None of the demands is likely to be met and the stalemate persists.

In the meantime, the Army continues training police in the other three provinces under its control.

Border police in Al Amarah are learning how to handle six US swamp boats which they will use to patrol the marshy border with Iran.

The preserve of the Marsh Arabs, it is a notorious route for weapons to enter Iraq.

The initial training on the boats is conducted just outside the Army base at Basra airport, on a stretch of muddy, salty water.

Two interpreters trying to translate Texan English from a US army instructor are wearing woollen balaclavas, despite the heat.

They fear reprisals from the police for working with the Army if they are identified. One has already been picked up and threatened.

They said they would kill me and my son if I did not stop working with the British

Being seen with the British is dangerous for ordinary Iraqis. Fewer and fewer journalists are willing to take the risk of attending press conferences at the base after receiving threats from militias who want the foreign forces out of Iraq.

One journalist, who did not want to be named, said if you asked people on the street who was planting bombs and killing people, they would say the British army.

"They know exactly who is doing it but blaming the army is the safest option," he said.

One father-of-three was forced out of his job with the Royal Engineers after he was followed home one night.

"They were wearing black masks and heavily armed," he said.

"They said they would kill me and my son if I did not stop working with the British."

The people of Basra feel powerless to stop the intimidation.

Mohammad, who also would not give his real name, said things like this happened every day but it could not be reported to the police.

"Toyotas go around snatching people but this is not like London - if you call the police here you don't know what will happen," he said.

"They could come and kill you."

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