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Last Updated: Monday, 23 October 2006, 15:45 GMT 16:45 UK
Dangers remain for British in Iraq
By John Humphrys
BBC News, Basra

John Humphrys and BBC Radio 4's Today programme are in Basra, speaking to British soldiers and assessing the reconstruction effort.

Here is an edited transcript of his trip with Normandy company to a village of marsh Arabs.

British soldiers in Iraq
British forces still have to be wary of dangers such as roadside bombs

More than three years after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, British forces still have to tread carefully around the southern city of Basra.

I'm in Basra palace, once one of the many homes of Saddam Hussein and his family.

It's on the shores of the Shatt al-Arab and it's a pretty bucolic scene that I'm looking out on - fishermen skimming through the water in their fragile boats, a stunning kingfisher darting here and there.

But it wasn't so peaceful a few hours ago, the second of two rocket attacks last night.

I counted nine explosions in the last one, which is why we've all been ordered to wear flak jackets, body armour.

It wasn't so peaceful a few hours ago
John Humphrys

From the other side of the Shatt, maybe hidden behind the palm trees that I can see on the other side of it, there'll be men watching us, perhaps the same men that fired those rockets, but they don't normally attack during the day.

High ambitions

It's three-and-a-half years since Saddam was overthrown and the war came to an end and now this palace is home to the British who control this southern corner of Iraq.

When they came here they had high ambitions to create a liberal democracy that would act as a beacon in the Middle East.

It hasn't worked out like that and the reason it hasn't is because the war didn't end.

Many more British soldiers have been killed in the insurgency than died in the war.

But the number of Iraqis killed is vastly more and that's why, although they've had elections, democracy is still no more than an aspiration.

Everyone accepts that until people here can live their lives free of the threats from the militias and death squads, there will be no truly democratic Iraq.

You can't have democracy without the rule of law and you don't get that if you can't trust the men that are meant to enforce the law.

Friendly to British

Normandy company are briefed before they take me out on a trip to a village of marsh Arabs.

John Humphrys in Basra
John Humphrys is in Basra with BBC Radio 4's Today programme

Pick your way through all the impenetrable military jargon, and what they're being reminded for the umpteenth time is that you can't even trust the presence of a police car, it might be concealing the trip wires or detonating device for an IED - an improvised explosive device - a roadside bomb.

Marsh Arabs are friendly to the British. They hated Saddam, he drained their marshes, destroyed their ancient way of life.

Now he has gone the marshes are being flooded again. It's good to see the river flowing strongly and reviving a whole eco-system.

The villages here are sad little places though, dirt poor, the children begging for bottles of water, but even down here the soldiers behave as if they're in enemy territory.

Checked carefully

Once on our way we had to stop because there was an unexpected roadblock, which isn't the kind of roadblock you'd have in mind perhaps.

It's a great mass of rubbish, bits of old cars and chairs, strewn across the road but in an organised way so that you have to skirt around one bit and then skirt around the next bit before you can get back on the road and this is checked out very carefully indeed.

I ask what the reason for the roadblock might be.

"It could be a boundary, it could be used as a chokepoint, which means we have to stop, we have to slow down. It could be lots of reasons," one of the soldiers says.

Hedging bets

We're about to cross a river, and I ask the reason for stopping here and having the men deployed around the place?

"The reason for stopping is that a bridge by its nature forms a vulnerable point," another of the men says.

This is where they might have what is known as a 'dicking screen'.

"It's very easy for locals and or insurgents, to view military traffic crossing this bridge, therefore we put in place what we call a "dicking screen".

"They will have individuals observing this location. By the time we have carried out this drill, which we need to carry out for our own safety, the fact that we are deploying to carry out the drill has been passed into the village and therefore they know that we are coming," it is explained to me.

I ask whether this suggests that the insurgents would have a lot of sympathy in this area.

"The people who live in this area seem to be mostly marsh Arabs and therefore they don't have a lot to do with the insurgents in many ways because the insurgents just bring them trouble," I'm told.

Why do they co-operate with the insurgents, I enquire.

"It may be that everything they do is not strictly legal. Generally they are very friendly to us here, they actually like the stability that we brought," the soldier explains.

I say I suppose they are hedging their bets in a way, and they don't want to upset the insurgents either.

"Absolutely, they don't want to get caught in the middle of something, not knowing or trusting when people may or may not be here in future."

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