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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 26 March, 2003, 08:34 GMT
Basra: Why they are not cheering

Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

They were supposed to be cheering in the streets as the American and British tanks rolled in, just as they did in France in 1944.

Wounded girl in Basra
Images of wounded civilians have been widely shown in the Arab world
On 18 March, the New York Times reported: "Military and allied officials familiar with the planning of the upcoming campaign say they hope that a successful and 'benign' occupation of Basra that results in flag-waving crowds hugging British and American soldiers will create an immediate and positive image worldwide while also undermining Iraqi resistance elsewhere."

The fact is that Basra is not undergoing a benign occupation. It has just been declared a military target by British forces which have come under attack from inside.

This was a city which the British spokesman Colonel Chris Vernon said early on was not of military importance.

In the scheme of things, it still isn't. But it has become a problem.

'Under threat'

What has happened?

The explanation, according to British and American officials, is that Saddam Hussein's forces are still oppressing the people who cannot therefore show their true emotions.

Right now they're still under threat - Saddam is still maybe alive and his goons and his assassination squads are still there
Paul Wolfowitz, US Deputy Defence Secretary
Dr John Reid, the British Labour Party chairman compared the irregular Saddam forces dressed in black - known as Saddam's Fedayeen - to the SS in Nazi Germany.

The US Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, one of those who wants Iraq to be at the start of a democratization process across the Arab world, told the BBC: "I think that when the people of Basra no longer feel the threat of that regime, you are going to see an explosion of joy and relief, but right now they're still under threat.

"Saddam is still maybe alive and his goons and his assassination squads are still there."

Bad memories

The people remember, it is said, what happened in 1991 when on 15 February, President George Bush senior urged "the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters in their own hands and force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside".

Bombed-out girls' school in Basra
Bombs are reported to have been dropped on civilian areas
The people did try, both in the Kurdish areas of the north and the mainly Shia areas of the south, including Basra.

They were cut down. The Kurds fled into the mountains of southern Turkey, but the Shias (and others like the communists) in the south had nowhere to go.

The London-based organisation Indict, which seeks to put Iraqi leaders on trial for war crimes, has accounts of mass executions in Basra and other southern cities as the Ba'ath party and the Republican Guard re-imposed their control.

Not cheering

However, it might not be as simple as that.

Consider what happened in Basra last Saturday when there were air raids. The Qatari television channel al-Jazeera had a team in the city and it sent back graphic pictures of dead and wounded civilians which were widely shown in the Arab world.

But these images were all but ignored in the West, which seemed more interested in pictures of the American prisoners of war.

Pictures used in the West tend to be sanitised. The photograph with this story, taken after an air raid in Basra on Saturday, shows a wounded girl. What it doesn't show is that her foot has been blown off.

We don't want Saddam, but we don't want them [the Americans] to stay afterwards
Mustafa Mohammed Ali, Nasiriya
People do not take kindly to being bombed, even by "friendly forces".

British forces, if they enter Basra to counter resistance there, will have to follow the advice of Colonel Tim Collins of the Royal Irish Regiment who told his men before the war started: "Tread carefully".

There is an interesting article in the Guardian of 25 March from its correspondent, James Meek, who has been with the US Marines in Nasiriya. He shows how hostility to Saddam Hussein is not necessarily converted into support for the invasion.

He managed to talk not just to marines but to locals, one of whom Mustafa Mohammed Ali was a surgical assistant at the Saddam hospital in the city.

The sufferers from sanctions may take time to be convinced that the invaders are bringing them relief
He said that in fighting on Sunday bombs were dropped on civilian areas, killing 10 people.

That day, two dead marines were brought to the hospital and he made this admission: "When I saw the dead Americans I cheered in my heart."

And yet he did not support Saddam Hussein: "We don't want Saddam, but we don't want them [the Americans] to stay afterwards."

Meek quoted another man, a farmer named Said Yahir, as saying that the marines had come to his house and had taken his son, his rifle and 3m dinars (500; $800).

"This is your freedom that you're talking about? This is my life savings," he said.

Said Yahir himself had taken part in the uprising of 1991. He is not cheering in 2003.

Effect of sanctions

There are two other points: the effect of years of sanctions and the effect of nationalism.

Although the sanctions regime allows for the provision of food and medicine, this is not always delivered to the poor.

Saddam Hussein is not blamed but the United Nations and the United States are.

The sufferers from sanctions may take time to be convinced that the invaders are bringing them relief.

Iraqi nationalism is another powerful influence.

Those who know the country say that it can hold people together, whether they are Kurds, Sunnis or Shias.

It appears to be a factor in the current phenomenon.

A coming together often happens to a people under siege, and a siege is what the Iraqis are now experiencing.

The BBC's Jane O'Brien reports from Kuwait City
"The 2 million residents of Basra have been without drinking water for four days"

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