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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 September, 2004, 12:51 GMT 13:51 UK
Basra: British troops in Iraq's 'peaceful' city

By Paul Wood
BBC Middle East correspondent, Basra

"There are lots of moderates here who support you. But if the shrines are touched, I'll kill you myself."

That was the warning given to a British brigadier by a leading Shia figure in Basra, during the long hot month of August, when the UK-led multi-national forces in southern Iraq found themselves under constant attack.

British troop in Basra on Saturday
Morale is high among British troops despite continuing violence

The Americans were battling Shia gunmen loyal to the radical cleric Moqtada Sadr in Najaf.

The anger spilled over into Basra and Amara, fuelled by the widespread belief that coalition forces were attacking Najaf's two holy shrines.

British officers characterise the August fighting as merely a "spike" in the violence. Some spike. Last month, British troops fired 100,000 rounds of ammunition in southern Iraq.

Mortar hits

The base in Amara sustained more than 400 direct mortar hits.

The British battalion there counted some 853 separate attacks of different kinds: mortars, roadside bombs, rockets and machine-gun fire.

They say that no British regiment has had such intense "contact" since Korea.

"Sometimes, in order to keep the peace, you have to find it first," said the commander in Amara, Lt Col Matt Maer, of the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment.

In conflicts, people sometimes waver, others are heroic
Iyad Allawi
Iraqi prime minister

Eventually an agreement in Najaf brought calm to the rest of the south too.

Since the shrines were not touched, it's thought that only 400 hard-core gunmen joined the fight against the multi-national forces in Basra.

Still, in an area which is 99% Shia, the great danger for the British is of a general Shia uprising.

It sometimes seems as if the troops are gingerly walking on the thin crust of a volcano, wondering how much pressure is building below.

The British - with tanks, air support and thousands of soldiers - say they could have destroyed the small militia force attacking them.

But they were asked by local people not to turn Basra into a war zone. And because they didn't, the majority still welcome them here.

Severed heads

We went on a British patrol in the dead of night to stop and search vehicles on the road from Amara to Basra.

Drivers were searched for illegal weapons. No-one expressed resentment.

One driver explained that hostage taking was especially bad on that stretch of road. People were glad of the British presence.

But the problem is that very few are actively supporting the fight against the militants. A vicious campaign of intimidation doesn't help matters.

British troops relaxing in a Basra street on Friday
British troops attacked cleric Moqtada Sadr's offices on Friday

Last month, five cleaning ladies at a British base were murdered on their way to work. Two local translators for the army disappeared. Their severed heads were found outside the front gate.

But perhaps the most worrying development of the August fighting was that none of Basra's 25,000 police officers came to the aid of the British soldiers. Some even helped the gunmen.

I asked the Iraqi prime minister, Iyad Allawi, if this wasn't rather shaming. Why hadn't he countermanded an order from the local police chief, who had told his men not to help the British?

Prime minister Allawi made a frank admission of the limits of his powers: "As you know in conflicts, people sometimes waver, others are heroic," he said.

"So the police force, we know, unfortunately in Basra did not do their duties well."

We hate the militia. Iraq was destroyed once. We will not allow it to be destroyed again
Iraqi police officer

He added: "We hope that we can address the issue of personnel and the command and control structure in the police."

So the British are rebuilding the security forces from the bottom up.

Eighteen months after arriving in Iraq, they are still recruiting new police officers and giving them basic training. The main qualification seems to be that you haven't been in the police before.

The best new recruits go into what's called the Tactical Support Unit; tough, highly professional forces which the British hope will serve as a model for the rest of Iraq.

The men in this unit are risking their lives - and those of their families. But they believe this is a life or death struggle for the future of their country.

"We hate the militia," one young officer told me, "Iraq was destroyed once. We will not allow it to be destroyed again."

'Fragile period'

Moqtada Sadr has spoken of his wish to transform his militia into a normal political party.

Yet over the past week, British soldiers have raided buildings belonging to his organization and found massive stockpiles of weapons: 50,000 rounds of ammunition, improvised bombs, and brand new grenades just imported into Iraq, not left over from Saddam's time.

So everyone knows the fighting is not over in Basra.

"We're in a fragile period," one British army captain said. "We're just waiting for it to break down."

Yet, British morale is extremely high.

Soldiers happily displayed bullet-scarred flak jackets and helmets during a visit to Basra by the chief of the general staff, Sir Mike Jackson, known affectionately by his men as the Prince of Darkness.

British troops uncover weapons in Moqtada Sadr's office
Moqtada Sadr said he wants to turn his militia into a political party

British casualties have been mercifully low. So British commanders, as they come to the end of each six month tour, tend to sound optimistic.

I met, though, one of the senior civilian political advisers to the military command, an astute and experienced Whitehall figure.

Every time he came to Basra things seemed a "step change worse" he said.

The best thing to happen, he went on, would be for a new Islamic government to be elected in January, which would ask multi-national forces to leave. He was not being facetious.

Elections do form part of the exit strategy, but not in this way. The hope is that the national poll in January will produce a government with the authority and the legitimacy to face down the gunmen on its own.

But in local elections in the British sector this week, turnout was just 15 per cent. A government with that much backing could be just one faction in the civil war some American intelligence officials fear is brewing.

That is very much the worst case. But a year ago, the British Army were still congratulating themselves on running one of the more peaceful parts of Iraq.

Now, whatever happens, they no longer have any illusions that their backyard will be immune from the violence.


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