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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 March 2006, 22:15 GMT
A British tragedy in a volatile province
By Jane Corbin,
BBC Panorama, Basra

British troops face protesters in al Amarah
The atmosphere in al Amarah has been tense

"Go, Go, Go...!" shouted the loadmaster as the Hercules touched down - its cargo bay swinging open and engines revving for a quick getaway.

I was "hot dropping" into al Amarah with British forces onto an unsecured airfield that often comes under fire from hostile forces.

Al Amarah is the capital of Maysan province, a wild and lawless tribal area on the border with Iran. Rival Shia militias, many of them allied to political parties in Iraq's new democracy, vie for power here with the British holding the ring and often bearing the brunt of casualties.

Maysan is earmarked as one of the first of the four British controlled provinces in southern Iraq which UK troops will leave first. What happens here is a test of if and when Britain can pull out of Iraq.

The Royal Scots Dragoon Guard in al Amarah have already pulled their heaviest armour, Challenger tanks, back to their base outside the town.

Tension

The British are increasingly leaving it to the new provincial council and to Iraqi security forces, trained by the coalition, to keep the peace.

Jane Corbin
A voice came over the tannoy saying that the base was under attack

But a respected local tribal leader, Abdul Karim Mahmoud al Muhammadawi, told me "there is chaos in town, assassinations and a lack of discipline and leadership among local forces".

As Panorama arrived the atmosphere was tense - a gunman had been killed by a rival militia and pictures of British squaddies beating up Iraqi youths in this town two years ago had inflamed anger in some quarters.

Muqtada al Sadr, the firebrand Shia leader had just passed through calling for the withdrawal of coalition troops. An interview set up with the local Governor was suddenly cancelled - he could not guarantee our safety in his downtown office.

'Normal weekday'

In Al Amarah with a British army patrol I met Captain Richard Holmes, of the Parachute Regiment, in the operations centre where Iraqi security forces co-ordinate action with the British.

An Arabic speaker, the British liaison officer with the local police, the young Captain was clearly liked and respected by the men who gathered round us as he showed me maps and pointed out the militia hotspots.

Together we walked down the main street of this dusty, strident place as horns blared and women scurried by in chadors.

Despite all the blemishes we have to deal with the reality as it is in Iraq today and it is a far better reality than it was only a few years ago
John Reid

Some men wished us "salaam aleykum".

It felt like a normal weekday morning but in Iraq appearances can be deceptive.

"Most people are welcoming and friendly," Captain Holmes assured me when I asked what working in the town was like.

He showed me weapons collected by the Iraqi civil guard the day before - a rocket which had been aimed at the British camp and an anti tank mine destined to become an IED - an explosive device of the kind that has killed so many British troops across Iraq.

"We've found they have not been directed towards us here," the Captain said, "and what is great is that we're not having to deal with these - the Iraqis are doing it themselves".

His words would return to haunt me later.

After nearly an hour in town Captain Holmes clearly felt it was dangerous to stay much longer. He quickly but calmly escorted me to the army vehicles and left.

As we reached the British base fifteen minutes later there was a flurry of activity - a helicopter racing overhead en route into Al Amarah - Warriors being scrambled and jets roaring overhead.

And then we were told that Captain Holmes and another soldier in his unit, Private Lee Ellis, had been killed by a roadside bomb as they travelled back to base along a different route to the one we had taken.

Some local people threw stones and petrol bombs at soldiers recovering the bodies.

Colonel Ben Edwards spoke to me just minutes after he learned of the deaths.

He was clearly deeply affected but his voice was steady.

"Its not the first time we've been here," he said. "It may seem harsh and heartless to say it but everyone came prepared for this and we are determined it will not put us off our pace."

Too much at stake

The families of the two soldiers later agreed that Panorama could show the pictures of their last patrol.

Colonel Edwards immediately let it be known in the town there would be no change in the British policy of handing the reins over to local authorities.

There would be no reprisals from the British.

There is simply too much at stake to allow British casualties to affect the process of handover as John Reid, the Secretary of State for Defence admits.

"Despite all the blemishes we have to deal with the reality as it is in Iraq today and it is a far better reality than it was only a few years ago," he said.

The truth is the British believe they have gone as far as they can in Maysan, a province that even Saddam never tamed and it is "good enough", as one British army officer put it, for troops to start leaving soon.



SEE ALSO:
Bringing Our Boys Home?
18 Mar 06 |  Panorama
Old practices die hard in Basra
18 Mar 06 |  Panorama
In pictures: Iraq three years on
18 Mar 06 |  In Pictures
Interview: Ibrahim Jaafari
18 Mar 06 |  Panorama
'Hotbed of anti-British violence'
01 Mar 06 |  Panorama


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