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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 May 2006, 15:55 GMT 16:55 UK
Basra is a 'safe zone' no more
A British helicopter has crashed in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, possibly shot down. BBC News website's Lisa Mitchell, who went to Basra with the British Army last month, explains what the situation is like on the ground.

The view from the air
British troops use helicopters routinely in Iraq

The British forces use helicopters in Basra like buses.

Because of the distances between bases, and more importantly because of the dangers of bombs at the sides of roads, they fly in and out of the Army's main base at Basra airport constantly.

The tactic has precedents in Northern Ireland, where helicopters were routinely used to avoid the threat from IRA bombs and snipers in "bandit country".

Three weeks ago British Army helicopters were ferrying the newly arrived soldiers of the 20th Armoured Brigade to the Shaibah base south of Basra or up to al Amarah province to the north.

It was a frenetic week of transfer as soldiers of the 7th Armoured Brigade, the Desert Rats, were brought up to Basra to be flown home at the end of their tour.

Helicopters are increasingly being used to replace vehicle patrols in the region.

'Hearts and minds'

I had last been in Basra in March 2004 when the "battle for hearts and minds" was at its height.

Patrols in armoured Land Rovers were welcomed with waves from children and soldiers walked through market places fully armed, but wearing their soft berets.

Now they cannot go to the toilet on their bases without carrying their helmet and flak jacket.

Once seen as the "safe zone" in Iraq, violence has escalated to such a point that a US Embassy report said Basra city is as dangerous now as any of the troubled northern cities.

In April the alarming development of a suicide car bomber getting in among a British patrol outside the Shaibah base has made the use of helicopters even more pertinent.

The RAF patrols the marshlands around the airport. Sometimes they visit villages at night on foot.

British Army helicopter in action in Northern Ireland
Helicopters were used in Northern Ireland because of the IRA threat

The marshes are home to farmers and fishermen.

They also harbour militias and are the unofficial route for arms to be smuggled in from Iran.

A few weeks before I arrived, the RAF found a cache of weapons including mortars and a launcher in one of the homes. Crude devices, they routinely are used to shell the bases at night, but often miss the target.

Huge crater

But when they hit, they do a lot of damage and left a huge crater in a road on the base when I was there.

They can also down aircraft. Since a surface-to-air missile hit a DHL plane at Baghdad airport, no-one goes anywhere in the air without being armed and wearing protection.

Such incidents are rare in the southern province although they often catch small arms fire as they fly overhead. Pilots say it is easier to see at night.

I went on patrol with the RAF in a helicopter, flying low over Basra city and then out over the isolated hamlets of the marshes.

An airman manned a gun control on the side and one hung out the back.

They still smile and wave at the people below, but no-one waves back now.

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