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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 October 2007, 11:49 GMT 12:49 UK
Fleeing Basra's Shia 'Taleban'
By Kate Clark
BBC Radio 4's File on 4

Mahdi Army militiamen celebrate the withdrawal of UK troops from Basra
People in Basra fear conflict between different militias

The sound of bullets punctuates the theme tune for the latest big hit Iraqi TV drama, New Nationality, which depicts people trying desperately to escape from Iraq.

For Abu and Im Nur, watching it with their five children in a barely furnished flat in Syria, the sound of bullets came a lot closer than their TV set.

"I was closing my shop... when in my car, they shot me and injured my hand," said Abu Nur, who had already sent his family to Syria from Basra, Iraq's second city, for safety reasons.

His mobile phone - smashed by bullets - saved his life.

After four years of occupation, British forces have withdrawn from their base inside Basra to the airport.

The next-door neighbour was killed in front of his door, some relatives were kidnapped for money - we were so terrified we decided to leave
Im Nur, Basra refugee
People still there, and those forced to flee like Abu, have described how rival Shia Islamist militias are struggling to control the city, with the British-trained police force proving to be a source of insecurity.

They say the militias have turned Basra into a "Shia Taleban" city.

Abu Nur fled following the attack two years ago.

His wife Im Nur trembles as she describes the life they left behind. "I was frightened for my girls, my son and husband. I couldn't stand it when they left the home, thinking they might not come back.

"The next-door neighbour was killed in front of his door. Some relatives were kidnapped for money. We were so terrified we decided to leave."

Extreme fear

It is this daily peril which has seen more than two million Iraqis flee since 2003 - and most are in Syria.

It was too dangerous for me to visit Basra - both for myself and any interviewee who might be seen associating with a foreigner.

Neither did I think I would get frank answers as an embed with the British army.

So, I have interviewed Basrans in exile and by telephone from the city.

That means they can speak in the relative security of their own homes.

Even so, I have encountered extreme levels of fear.

Most of my phone interviewees have asked for complete anonymity.

Even my teachers were trying to convert me - I was so disgusted, I didn't want to go to school anymore
Zuhur, 19, student
No real names and no voices.

A well-respected and informed Basran, whom I will call Abu Mohammed, explained why: "There's a violence in Basra carried out by mafias, the organised crime gangs which are spread widely in Basra.

"On a normal day in the mortuary, you can find about 50 corpses."

Since the British left their base inside the city, violence in Basra is hugely reduced because the main target of the Iraqi fighters, the British army, has withdrawn.

But now we can see the Iraqi on Iraqi violence more clearly - two recent suicide bombs, one anti-Sunni, the other anti-Shia, and two senior clerics assassinated - to add to the 300 clerics already killed this year.

It was not supposed to be like this.

In 2003, when I was in Basra just after the invasion, it was safe.

I drove round the city with a female producer. Strangers invited us for tea.

At times, people literally queued up to be interviewed.

Women, perhaps especially religious women, spoke of their hopes for education, work, even political leadership. How times have changed.

Nineteen-year-old Zuhur is Mandean - a member of a small, ancient religion indigenous to Iraq, whose followers are mentioned in the Koran as a people who should be protected by Muslim states.

But like Christians, their numbers are now in freefall in Iraq.

"At school, everyone was saying: 'Why don't you become Muslim? Why is your hair uncovered?'" she recalled.

The British forces opened the door to the jungle and they let monsters into Basra
Abu Mohammad, Basra, resident

"Even my teachers were trying to convert me. I was so disgusted, I didn't want to go to school any more.

"Anyone in the street might beat me, if he had a knife he would stab me, if a gun, shoot me."

The current British Consul General in Basra, Richard Jones, said the level of tolerance - social, political and religious - was still not acceptable, and the British wanted to see continued progress.

There is no doubt that party or militia membership brings advantages.

Militiamen get jobs in the police force, in the army, hospitals and the government.

Abu Ahmad, who still lives in Basra, told me: "We're afraid of everyone - the police, militias, army. We don't feel safe."

The consul general agreed that many Basrans were very frightened, but said the Baghdad-appointed General Mohan, now head of security for the city, was purging the force.

'Failed mission'

Most of the Basrans we spoke to said British forces had failed in their mission.

But whatever they think of them, virtually no-one wants British forces to leave completely. The alternatives are even worse.

Abu Mohammad explained: "The British forces opened the door to the jungle and they let monsters into Basra - the killers who have destroyed civil life, the mafias and black marketeers, smugglers, money launderers, political militias and non-political militias.

"Now, they're talking about withdrawing completely! I'm asking them to get those monsters out of our city, back to the jungle, before their troops leave Basra."

To hear more about this story listen to File On 4, BBC Radio Four Tuesday 2 October 2007 2000 BST, repeated Sunday 7 October 1700 BST.

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