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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 October, 2004, 11:26 GMT 12:26 UK
Why it's different in Basra
By Hugh Sykes
BBC, Baghdad and Basra

After spending time with the American First Cavalry in Baghdad and the British army in Basra, Hugh Sykes gives his views on how their different approaches have influenced the attitudes of local people towards the military.

US Solider in a Humvee
Humvees used by the US troops are usually armed
I have been in Iraq for a fortnight but I have not really been in Iraq at all.

I have been in occupied Iraq, in the back of a US Army Humvee with men armed with pistols, rifles, machine guns and shot guns. They are good for "bad guys who get too close".

Top Cover for the Humvee stands with his head and shoulders out of the roof, and is mostly a traffic cop as Humvee Man forces his way through the Baghdad traffic, sounding his horn and shouting at other drivers at roundabouts and intersections. "Hey! Get out of the Way! You! Stop!"

Iraqi drivers stop, and swerve, and pull over to the side, and the Humvee rushes on.

This is all justified, they say, because of the acute danger of VBIEDs - Vehicle-Born Improvised Explosive Devices. That is, car bombs.

But I believe this is a vicious circle of their own making, that much of the hatred of the Americans that is now violently expressed was provoked by their ignorant disrespect of decent people.

Shifting attitudes

The first time I was in a crowd of Iraqis, they were chanting a rather peaceful demand: "Give us security, give us jobs".

Map of Iraq showing Baghdad and Basra

US Marines loomed over the mostly middle-aged demonstrators with pistols and rifles pointing straight at their increasingly resentful faces.

I witnessed this deadly shift take place.

Over a very few days, the guarded welcome that greeted the "liberation" turned sour and Iraqis protested that the invaders had blundered in and protected only themselves and a few key locations like the oil ministry, and had stood to one side as looters had the time of their lives.

Many of us reported at the time that there seemed to be no plan for the peace, that the occupying forces appeared to be out of control.

Retired American General Jay Garner, the first civilian administrator in post-war Iraq, says this was true.

He told the New York Times this month that the Bush administration did not "have their heads in the post-war game".

A statue of Saddam is pulled over in Firdus Square, Baghdad
The fall of Saddam's statue marked the end of his regime
An intelligence officer with the US marines admitted to the same paper: "We did not have the force levels to keep the insurgency down."

And yet, amazingly, exactly a week after the fall of Saddam Hussein's statue in Firdus Square, in the middle of this palpable anarchy, US Army commanders in Baghdad were receiving instructions from Washington to prepare to withdraw troops.

What they needed was more troops.

There were not even enough to seal the borders to stop the Zarqawis and al-Qaeda from coming in.

An Iraqi engineer told me this week: "The Americans have made this land truly fertile for terrorism."

With images of severed heads never far from their minds, Western contractors and journalists are now terrified of kidnapping and live in heavily protected camps and compounds, and travel about in armoured vehicles.

Outside the fortifications

Through the metal grill and the bullet-proof glass of the Humvee, I can see Iraq somewhere out there.

General Jay Garner
Jay Garner has admitted that the coalition did make mistakes
Blurred snapshots as we speed past women walking in the dust in their black chadors.

A man standing in the shade of a tree drinking a can of lemonade. Workmen sweeping the street.

A busy fruit and vegetable market.

Children with satchels chatting happily on their way to school.

Men digging a trench for a new water main, sewage lying in pools along the road.

Traders selling fridges and TVs from the pavement, and incessant traffic with many new cars amongst the ubiquitous battered old Toyotas.

Also, so many satellite TV dishes on so many roofs that some of the old apartment blocks look like MI6 or CIA electronic listening stations.

Softly, softly

Down with the British in Basra it's all a bit different.

I am still incarcerated - but in an armoured Land Rover.

And we stop here and there, and get out, and talk to people.

Out on patrol the British soldiers sling their helmets from their belts and wear soft hats and buy cans of Coke from street stalls. Softly, softly.

A British soldier talks to local residents
British troops have adopted a "softly, softly" approach in Basra
Since the Moqtada al-Sadr uprising in August was suppressed, Basra has been pretty quiet.

Brigadier Andrew Kennet believes that "softly, softly" pays off.

He told me "I did not raze Basra to the ground, but I could have done."

And he says he received a delegation of local people thanking him for targeting the insurgents and not punishing the whole population.

An interpreter at a British base imagines the vehicles the British and the Americans use as a metaphor for the different approaches.

"The Humvee - sinister, aggressive," he said. "The Land Rover - friendly, comfortable and wise."

But it is the troops inside them that count.

And it was inside a Humvee that I met Mike.

A kind and thoughtful man who does not shout at Iraqis.

And in the dark in the Humvee after a long day in Baghdad, Mike handed me a torch and a small dusty book.

His family photo album.

Trying to hold the beam steady in the back of the bouncing armoured car, I looked at pictures of his wife and of their baby son Alexander - born this year, on 11 September.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 23 October 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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