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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 September, 2004, 09:08 GMT 10:08 UK
Iraq: How bad can things get?
Paul Wood
By Paul Wood
BBC Middle East correspondent, Basra

Just how bad are things in Iraq? Since just last week it has seen hundreds of deaths, suicide bombings, beheadings, yet more people kidnapped.

When I visited Basra exactly one year ago it was safe enough to stay in town on our own.

This time, we wouldn't dream of doing that. The chances of being kidnapped are too great.

British forces in Basra
British troops are on high alert as they patrol Basra now
It's true there have been some real, solid achievements over the past year.

There aren't petrol queues, or petrol riots, in Basra any more.

The electricity is on for longer. And oil exports from the south are up to 2.9 million barrels a day.

But here are some other statistics. Last month, the British Army fired 100,000 rounds of ammunition in southern Iraq.

The base in al-Ammara sustained more than 400 direct mortar hits.

The British battalion there counted some 853 separate attacks of different kinds: mortars, roadside bombs, rockets and machine-gun fire.

No British regiment has had such intense "contact", as they call it, since Korea.

Fury over Najaf

A year ago, the British Army was still congratulating itself on running one of the more peaceful parts of Iraq.

It seems sometimes UK troops are gingerly walking on the thin crust of a volcano, wondering how much pressure is building below
If you'd predicted all this, it would have been dismissed as doom-mongering.

British officers characterise the fighting in August as merely a spike in the violence.

They say quite rightly that the trouble had a particular cause.

The Americans were battling Shia gunmen loyal to the radical cleric Moqtada Sadr in Najaf.

Sadr supporters in Basra
The British say they could have destroyed Sadr's militia if they had wanted to
The fury spilled over into Basra and al-Ammara.

The anger was fuelled by the widespread belief that US-led forces were attacking the two holy shrines in Najaf.

At the height of the crisis, a leading Shia figure in Basra told a British Brigadier: "There are lots of moderates here who support you. But if the shrines are touched, I'll kill you myself."

Uprising fears

Eventually a peace deal in Najaf brought peace to the rest of the south too.

Since the shrines were not touched, only about 400 hard-core gunmen joined the fight against the multi-national forces in Basra.

Still, in an area which is 99% Shia, the great danger for the British is of a general uprising.

UK soldier surrounded by Iraqi children
A year ago the atmosphere in Basra was very different
It sometimes seems as if the troops are gingerly walking on the thin crust of a volcano, wondering how much pressure is building below.

The British - with tanks, air support and thousands of soldiers - say they could have destroyed the small militia force attacking them.

But they were asked by local people not to turn Basra into a war zone.

And because they didn't, the majority still welcomes them here.

Grateful for security

We went on a British patrol in the dead of night to stop and search vehicles on the road from al-Ammara to Basra.

None of Basra's 25,000 police officers came to the aid of the British soldiers in the August fighting. Some even helped the gunmen
At our checkpoint, drivers were made to get out and show their ID cards while soldiers looked under the seats and in the boot for illegal weapons.

Not one of the drivers or passengers expressed any resentment at this.

One explained that hostage-taking was especially bad on that stretch of road.

The gangs usually kidnap a driver, his lorry and its cargo, he said, and ransom the whole lot back to the company concerned.

Many drivers are killed. It's no surprise then that people are glad of the British presence.

Vicious intimidation

The problem is that very few people are actively supporting the fight against the militants.

British troops hit by Molotov cocktails during a riot in Basra
There are no illusions about life in the British sector any more
A vicious campaign of intimidation doesn't help matters.

Last month, five cleaning ladies at a British base were murdered on their way to work.

Two local translators disappeared. Their severed heads were found outside the front gate.

But perhaps the most worrying development of the August fighting was that none of Basra's 25,000 police officers came to the aid of the British soldiers. Some even helped the gunmen.

I met one of the senior civilian political advisors to the military command.

Every time he came to Basra things seemed a "step change worse", he said.

The best thing to happen, he went on, would be for a new Islamic government to be elected in January which would ask multi-national forces to leave.

I don't think he was being facetious.

Exit strategy

Elections do form part of the exit strategy, but not in this way.

The hope is that national elections in January will produce a government with the authority and the legitimacy to face down the gunmen on its own.

But in local elections in the British sector this week, turnout was just 15%.

A government election with that much backing would be just one faction in the civil war which some American intelligence officials believe is brewing.

That is very much the worst case. But whatever happens, British officers no longer have any illusions that the southern corner of Iraq they run will be immune from the violence.


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