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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 April, 2003, 15:30 GMT 16:30 UK
A war too big to comprehend

By Hilary Andersson
BBC correspondent in southern Iraq

British artillery shows as streaks of light in the sky around Basra
Coalition artillery fire is frightening even if you are behind it

Last night the stray dogs were howling in southern Iraq, howling across the barren, war-torn, flat and scarred landscape.

A landscape drenched in darkness, the darkness of warfare where no lights are allowed, lest military positions are revealed.

A darkness lit up only by the majesty of the stars, which feed on the blackness of the night and because of that are all the brighter.

I had fallen into a deep sleep, for just two hours.

Sleep muddled with dreams of chemical warfare, soldiers, and strange phrases such as close aerial support.

I was wedged into a five-foot (1.5m) wide military tent with a colleague's feet in my face, breathing dust, on the outskirts of Basra.

Assaulting the senses

Those were the few hours between the first British artillery fire into Basra, and the second.

Artillery fire that makes the earth shake violently beneath your feet, that sends jolts into your chest, that spews up swirls of sand and dust that clog your eyes.

Artillery fire that assaults your every sense, that you dread, even from a safe position behind it.

This night British troops were firing giant lights into Basra from the outskirts of the city.

Lights that tore in packages out of the barrels of the giant guns and ripped through the sky for 10 miles (16 kms) or more before opening up over Basra and elegantly gliding by parachute down over the town.

Lights that lit up four square miles of central Basra in the dead of night.

Caught in crossfire

The purpose was to expose all Iraqi military movements in that area, to find out who is where, and to send a message of domination, a message that coalition troops are in charge here, not the Iraqis.

Girl in Basra with her mother
Iraqis in Basra are nervous - not just of Saddam Hussein, but of UK forces

The British soldiers gave me coffee, and one of them said to me: "Yeah - it's basically like having a giant spotlight in your eye for anyone in that area."

"It must be terrifying for the people."

And that is just the lights.

This is not even artillery fire, the mortars, the tank fire.

What must it be like to be caught in the midst of the fire going both ways?

Basra is cut off for most of us, all we can do is get close and watch, talk to the few who come out of the city and imagine what it must be like for the rest.

Those like the Iraqis that Britain is trying to win over with war. The people caught between their own oppressors and the coalition soldiers.

The Iraqis that, to most British soldiers, appear on the landscape as dusty, ragged children waving, and crying out for water as they drive by in armoured land rovers.

Or the Iraqis in cars who have to be checked in case they are militia. Who sometimes are made to kneel on the ground in a pen by British soldiers until they are checked.

Iraqi nerves

Those I have spoken to all say the same.

Who is illegal? The invaders or the invaded? The language of the new liberator to people here is strange indeed
They are nervous. They do not like Saddam Hussein, but they do not like the British army either.

"We are not Palestine, we are not Palestine!" one Iraqi man shouted.

"You can't just occupy us."

Many say they are scared to speak. Many say they just do not want trouble, they do not want war.

Many say they cannot trust the West after Western troops went home in 1991, leaving them to bear the punishment that the Iraqi leader's men meted out.

US President George W Bush keeps talking about liberating Iraq.

"We will bring you food", he says, as if he is imitating his local preacher in Texas. "We will bring you water."

"Criminal forces"

As I write I am in a country without a visa.

Leaflet distributed to Iraqis by British forces saying
Coalition forces pledge things will be different to 1991

I never passed through an Iraqi border checkpoint. I invaded, too. I came in with the British forces.

By all rights of a sovereign nation I am here illegally. By what right am in Iraq? By what right is Britain? That is what Iraqis want to know.

And listen to the language of the British forces.

A spokesman at the military headquarters in Qatar called the Iraqi militias "illegal criminal forces".

This was perhaps in reference to the law of armed conflict which defines standards of warfare, such as wearing uniforms and not using civilians as human shields.

New world order?

But whatever you think of Saddam Hussein, how can you call a man defending his sovereign nation an illegal element?

Who is illegal? The invaders or the invaded? The language of the new liberator to people here is strange indeed.

British propaganda pumps happy Arabic music into Iraqi towns near here.

They produce leaflets with pictures of a smiling British soldiers earnestly shaking the hand of a bemused looking Iraqi.

The caption reads "This time we won't abandon you".

Perhaps that is true, perhaps it is not.

This war is almost too big to comprehend.

You lie in your tent here in the desert, small beneath the sky, and try to imagine that more than one quarter of a million soldiers are here - a huge proportion of Britain's army, a huge proportion of America's.

You see the faces of the soldiers, confused, out of their depth as they try to control the crowds, and you wonder where this is going.

A giant war - the birth of a new liberator with his new language - and the birth of a new world order that feels frightening and strange.

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