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Page last updated at 11:56 GMT, Friday, 14 December 2007

Basra's new era brings new fears

By Andrew North
BBC News, Basra

Iraqi police, Basra
British trained police are widely mistrusted by local people

"Liberated from Saddam Hussein and handed to the militias" is a common view of what the British military has achieved in Basra.

Many residents told the BBC that militias have tightened their grip in Basra since the last British troops pulled out of the city in September, after months of relentless attacks.

They accuse Shia militias, including the Mehdi army of Moqtada Sadr, of a campaign of intimidation and violence, particularly against women.

Mafia-style turf battles bring further bloodshed, partly competing for a slice of the oil revenues flowing through the city.

More than 40 women have been killed in the past few months, according to Basra's police chief - most shot dead by unidentified gunmen. Extremists linked with militias are widely blamed.

Dramatic drop

"We do not feel safe even going to the market, " says Saida, a mother of four children. "We could be shot by the militias at any time. I cannot go out without hijab."

Violence involving British forces - which cost many lives - has dropped dramatically since the British left their last remaining base in the city, in Saddam Hussein's former palace. But violence against Iraqis goes on.

Yet Basra was once known as a more tolerant and liberal place, where strict Islamic codes were not as strictly enforced.

Now carefully-stencilled warnings, in red paint, have appeared on walls across the city - threatening any women who go out without hijab, or Islamic headscarf.

"Whoever violates this will be punished," the anonymous notice reads. "God is our witness that we warned them."

Police targets

Much appears normal in Basra though. Although power and basic services are still patchy at best, markets are busy.

Women in Basra applying henna
Many of the women of Basra fear making an appearance outside
Streets hum with traffic, with Iraqi security forces patrolling.

The police chief has taken the lead in trying to combat the attacks on women.

But he's a target too - assassins have tried to kill him several times.

And those forces - trained by the British - are still widely mistrusted by Basra residents, especially the police.

Many complain of endemic corruption and say it is simply the militia in different uniform - so deeply infiltrated into its ranks are militia supporters.

Exaggerated power

British commanders say Iraqi security forces have made great progress and are ready to take full over in the province.

They also say militia influence is not as great as claimed.

It is perhaps telling that Moqtada Sadr's supporters in the city say similar things.

"Our power is exaggerated," Ali Saidi, a senior official at the movement's Basra office told the BBC.

A frequent complaint is that the British let things slide, allowing militias to gain strength with their low-key "soft-hat" tactics in the early days of their occupation.

Confined

It's gone from berets to bombs, as the situation deteriorated year by year.

British soldier in Basra
Clashes with UK forces have fallen since they left their last Basra base
After the deaths of more than 170 servicemen and women since 2003, many believe Britain is now simply cutting its losses.

On the other hand, there is now little it can do.

With most troops already confined at the airport base outside the city, their influence is limited.

It will decline even further as they hand over responsibility for the entire Basra province to the Iraqis this weekend - likely to be the last major event in the progressive British pullout from the south.

Next spring, troop numbers will fall to just 2,500 - little more than a token force for such a large local population.

Shadowy competition

The Mehdi army deny they are behind the attacks on women, but also question the reports.

"If it's true, this violence exists everywhere, in America and Britain, as well as in Iraq," says Ali Saidi.

"Nobody can say that one bloc or movement is responsible for these crimes.

"We haven't heard that so many women have been murdered, but we haven't threatened any women."

The reality is that no-one is sure who is behind these killings, with so many shadowy groups and factions competing for power.

Saddam's tyranny may have gone, but this is not the liberation the British promised when they first invaded.



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