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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 December 2007, 14:46 GMT
Transcript: Basra - The Legacy


Basra - The Legacy

Reporter: Jane Corbin

DATE: 17:12:07

JEREMY VINE: Hello, I'm Jeremy Vine and this is Panorama. As Britain hands over control of Basra to Iraqi security forces what are we leaving behind? Women are being brutally killed for being improperly dressed. There's torture and ethnic cleansing and thousands of people who work for us risk being murdered.

TAROUB AL-AINACHE: Why did they come? Why?

VINE: Tony Blair promised to bring the people of Basra stability and security but what are we really leaving behind? In a report that pulls no punches, Jane Corbin reveals the true legacy Britain is leaving the people of Basra, despite the bravery and sacrifice of our armed forces, the city and its inhabitants are being left facing an uncertain future.

JANE CORBIN: Basra, for centuries one of the great trading cities of the Middle East. After almost five years of war and occupation by the British it's still a bustling place, home to nearly two million people. But you only need to check out the graffiti to see there's a dark side to Basra. "Beware of using makeup and prettifying yourselves" the signs say "you will be punished for it. God is our witness that you have been warned." The threats are posted by a group calling itself: 'The Organisation Ordering an End to Abomination' just one of many criminal gangs that terrorise ordinary people here, and these are no empty threats as one woman from Basra told me. We can't show her face, it would put her life at risk.

"Since democracy, as you call it, came, women wearing clothes with bright patterns are being killed in the streets. When the British were in control women weren't killed, they could go out dressed as they liked."

CORBIN: The Basra Police showed us records of 47 brutal murders of women in the past few months. They've never been seen publicly before. And what crime deserves hideous mutilation and death? Not dressing modestly enough, offending the so-called 'moral guardians' of the city.

Basra Police Chief
When a woman is murdered her corpse is thrown into the streets. They write notes on her body that she was an adulterous or some other excuse. Sometimes they put shameful clothes on her after she has been killed so they can prove she was "without honour" as we say in our society. Some women have been slaughtered in front of their children and sometimes children who were with them have been murdered.

CORBIN: For months I'd been hearing rumours of terrible things happening here and I wanted to investigate. But the British Army had withdrawn to their camp 12 miles outside Basra. The threat of kidnap for journalists was high and I could no longer enter the city where I'd once worked freely.

This is the road that leads from the British Military Base down to Basra City. But I can't go there now, it's just too dangerous for western journalists. But Panorama has found dedicated local people who, despite the risks, are prepared to help us build a picture of what's going on down in Basra. Some people have filmed for us, collected information, written diaries about life in the city. We've had to protect the identities of most of them for fear of reprisals. One woman emailed me about the 'dark forces' in Basra.

Actor's voice
"I've had several warnings including a death threat and a threat to kidnap my son. Every morning they find bodies in the rubbish bins. There have been several murders of women by masked groups who I think have some sort of relationship with the police since they use unmarked police cars."

CORBIN: So who are these masked men with close links to the police? Everyone here says the same - the Shia militias. Panorama got in touch with Sheikh Bahadli, the Leader of the Mahdi Army, the most powerful of these groups, to ask about the killing of women. He said it was all exaggerated, just a tribal matter, but he did have a message for the ladies of Basra.

Mahdi militia
Where do you find jewellery? In a big glass display case because it's valuable. Islam sees women as our most precious jewels. We protect them from prying eyes in a case made of cloth - the hijab, so they don't get damaged.

CORBIN: Some aspects of life are better now in Iraq's second city, neglected and repressed by Saddam for so long. There's clean water and more electricity than before, though still not enough. There have been free elections, schools and universities are full, yet without security people's lives won't really improve. In Basra's hospitals there are long queues and harassed staff just like anywhere. But here doctors are targets.

Basra doctor, words spoken by an actor
Many doctors have been kidnapped. This year alone at least ten have been taken by gangs and then released after they pay a ransom. Just last month a doctor was kidnapped by people using a government car. A government car! He was only released after he'd paid out $20,000. So there's no security and everyone is thinking about leaving the city.

CORBIN: The militias have infiltrated the security forces and the local council. They're the real power in the city. You find their propaganda everywhere. They're the armed wings of political parties elected to power in the new democracy Britain and America brought to Iraq. Now the British are bowing out, handing over Basra and it's problems to the Iraqis.

If the British exit strategy from Southern Iraq is going to work then Iraqi security forces have got to keep this part of the country controlled and I'm on my way now to see the one man on whose shoulders that all rests.

I was off to meet the Iraqi General who is now the new military power in Basra. The British Army drove me across the desert to his new headquarters. An experienced army officer, General Moham, has been imposed on the city by the Baghdad Government to tackle the militias, and it won't just be an exercise like the one staged here. The General blames the British for the militias strength.

Could the British have fought against the militias earlier? Would the situation be better if they'd done that?

Basra Security Chief
Certainly, because the militias weren't strong enough then. They appeared after the collapse of Saddam's regime, not before. They weren't really organised. They were just some small groups which were only able to become powerful because of the absence of the Iraqi state and the lack of preventative action by the British.

July 2004

CORBIN: The Shia militias first flexed their muscles a year after the invasion. Further north American troops took them on, but the British Army lacked the manpower and the political will back home. Soon the militias began cleansing Southern Iraq, first hounding out the alcohol sellers. Though mainly Shia, Basra had always been famous for its tolerance. But now Sunnis, Christians and other minorities began to fear for their lives, so did those who opposed corruption. Tarub Al-Ainache's husband, Hasan group up in Basra. The couple met almost 30 years ago as students in London. After Saddam was toppled they went back to Basra to help rebuild Hasan's city.

He always told me: "I want to make Basra another Venice. Basra is going to be the Venice of the Middle East." And he really had high, high hopes for Basra, he loved it.

CORBIN: But Hasan, now an official in the provincial council, soon became a target.

TAROUB: Somebody came for him to sign a piece of paper for him, or a plea or something, and he found that it was not proper, when he refused to do it, this man just got hold of a grenade... a hand grenade, and he told him: "You either sign or I will throw this grenade." And my husband told him you don't have to. If you want to kill anybody, kill me, because I am not signing.

CORBIN: Standing up to criminals made Hasan a marked man. He was gunned down as he left for work one day by men dressed as policemen - but they weren't.

TAROUB: It was impostors. I heard the shots in the house because it happened so near to my house. They just came at very, very short range and blew his head off.

CORBIN: Hasan's assassination in 2004 was one of the first. Hundreds followed; lawyers, professors, educated people Basra couldn't afford to lose. As the chaos unfolded, people began to flee from Basra and towns across Iraq. It's become one of the greatest mass movements of people in recent history. More than two million have been displaced within Iraq, millions more have fled to surrounding nations, most have come to Syria. I went to the UN's refugee processing centre in Damascus on a quiet day.

This is just a tiny number of what's estimated to be around two million refugees from Iraq that have flooded here into Syria and neighbouring Jordan. They've waited all day in a boiling hot sun. They'll be here tomorrow and the day after. They're desperate to get settlement somewhere else, to get a visa to stay here in Syria or to move abroad. Thousands of refugees have found a welcome in this district of Damascus known as "Little Iraq". Travel agents offering cheap coach trips, shops baking Iraq's famous bread. This is how Basra and Baghdad used to be - vibrant and open, people mixing freely. But everywhere I heard stories of fear and repression back home in Basra. One family invited me in for a traditional lunch of grilled Iraqi fish. They came here earlier this year. Again we've had to protect their identities. A manager in Basra during Saddam's time, Latif's a Sunni. That was enough for the militiamen, in cahoots again with the police.

LATIF: The Iraq police stopped me, the Basra police. It was they who took me, four of them, from my car at gunpoint. They didn't take me to the police station or the local council, or any official place. They took me to the Mahdi army militia. After they brought me there the Mahdi army tortured me.

CORBIN: One of Latif's relatives later filmed his injuries on a mobile phone.

LATIF: Eight of them hit me with metal rods, and every time they stopped someone would come and try to strangle me and wanted to execute me and tightened the rope to choke me, but God didn't want him to kill me. They lined people up and shot them, or ransomed them for money after torturing them. They got 20,000 dollars for me and let me go.

CORBIN: The United Nations told us one in five Iraqi refugees who register with them here in Syria have been victims of torture. It's not only Sunnis who've been forced out of Basra. In another street I found a Shia, once a manager in a big hotel. His father had written nationalist poetry in Saddam's day. So the son became a target for the militias.

MAN: First you get a letter, then they threaten you by shooting bullets at your front door. After that, if you don't heed these threats, they will try and kill you. Essentially a death squad will come to kill people who are marked. That's how it is.

CORBIN: What strikes you about this Iraq in exile is how everyone gets on so well. There's little distinction between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Up to 40% of Basra used to be Sunni and there were many mixed marriages. Now, like so much of Iraq, the city is mostly divided along sectarian lines. This couple fled after he was held for 14 days in a secret militia prison. His crime? Being the wrong kind of Muslim.

WOMAN: I am a Shia and my husband is a Sunni. We never discriminated between Sunnis and Shia. But now - no! Relationships are difficult for people who've married into mixed Shia or Sunni families. There are now sectarian conflicts within those families.

CORBIN: The couple who came here last year say it was the British who let the militias become all powerful.

They left a vacuum and the people of Basra have lost out. Because the factions have come in to mess things up, to mess around with the city, and there is no one to stop them.

CORBIN: At night little Iraq is filled music, unlike Basra these days. There a hard line Islamic ideology is taking root, not the freedom the British promised. It's not just Sunnis and women who are suffering, it's anyone who threatens that ideology. Basra was once famous for its music, but now, one of its well known musicians is in exile, lamenting the fate of his home.

KHALIL: [sings] "I live and die through Basra
It has left a sadness in my heart.."

Basra musician
Music was one of the first things to be forbidden in Basra because of the many religious sects, weird and strange tribal conflicts which have led to the banning. It's become an obsession, even with ordinary people, that they shouldn't listen to music. This in itself is backwardness.

CORBIN: Little Iraq in Damascus offers a vision of what Basra once was, and could be again, more relaxed and free for women, music, no stigma to being Sunni or Shia. Yet even here the exiles have to be careful. People have come here because they feel safe in little Iraq, they've escaped the terror of Basra. But the fact of the matter is that the militias are everywhere. We're conscious that we've been watched while we've been here, and even more worryingly so have some of the families that we've been talking to. It seems that even here Syria people from Basra can't escape from the watchful eye of the militias. The Mahdi Army and other militias have opened offices in Damascus. Despite all the testimony we heard, their leader flatly denies they've chased anyone out of Basra.

Mahdi Army militia
If you are saying some families have been forced to flee Basra, I haven't heard of a single case. No one has had threats made against them except perhaps by some criminals.

CORBIN: Back in Basra, now the British have withdrawn from the city centre, there are no more pitched battles with the militias. Iraqi security forces are in charge. These men are training to rescue kidnap victims, but it's hard for people to know who to trust. It's the police who should be protecting them, millions in British aid has been invested in training them. But the police force is still a hotbed of corruption and sectarian score settling as our diarist confirmed.

Actor's voice
It is difficult in Basra to tell what is official or not. Militias and Islamic movements penetrate the police and state utilities. They kill and assassinate in police uniform, using police weapons, driving police vehicles.

CORBIN: Iraq's government has pinned its hopes on a new police chief. General Jalil's job is to clean up the force and restore law and order here in Basra.

General Jalil, Salaam Alaikum.

JALIL: Good to see you.

CORBIN: Jane Corbin from the BBC.

When I met him he told me that forcing out hundreds of corrupt and partisan offices had made him a target. Seven times so far his enemies have tried to assassinate him.

Basra Police Chief
I've been subjected to assassination attempts, some by roadside bombs, some by snipers. These attempts are continuous, almost daily. However, this doesn't affect my work. On the contrary, I'm more determined and I feel I'm doing a good job. It's starting to impact on those outside the law who don't want security and stability in Basra.

CORBIN: But he's dealing with a multimillion pound mafia with money to burn thanks to Basra's enormous oil reserves. Customs officers are on the lookout for ships smuggling oil, but there are too many inlets and bribes on offer. Within weeks of the invasion the British handed the oil fields back to the Iraqis. The militias soon moved in, siphoning off huge amounts of black gold.

Iraq Minister of Oil, 1987-90
Can you imagine a militia having control of two million dollars a month what they can achieve, what they can do. That means power, that means recruitment of people, that means procurement of weapons, that means procurement of politicians, they can do anything with that.

CORBIN: Basra's new security chiefs, Generals Jalil and Moham will have to deal with the militias. It could be bloody. We caught up with them as Jalil apologised for being late. Another bomb meant for him had just wounded four of his bodyguard.

Basra Security Chief
It's possible to negotiate with some of the militias and deal with them in a friendly way, but there are other militias, especially those that have no discipline and are out of control, they can only be dealt with using force.

CORBIN: Iraqis feel they can no longer count on the British military who have now handed over responsibility for security here. They still patrol the villages outside Basra, but the emphasis is on their own security now. Tribal elders here told me they fear civil war. There's no stability as yet. They hope and pray that things will work out. As the British pulled back, one group of Iraqis are very vulnerable, thousands of interpreters who've worked for them. I filmed with one of them in a Basra police station last year, even then he was so afraid he hid behind sunglasses at midnight. The British acknowledge 40 Iraqis who worked with them have been killed, but other estimates suggest that up to 50 more may have been murdered as collaborators. I'd met two former translators in Syria. We've had to keep their identity secret so family in Basra won't be killed. One worked for the British for three years, the other seven months.

[at a café chatting with translator] A certificate of appreciation from the Welsh Regiment.

Amongst their few possessions certificates of commendation from the cream of British regiments.

[at café] It says here: "We wish you a safe and brighter future for you and your family."

They told me why they'd had to escape from Basra.

Actor's voice
TRANSLATOR: My father said to me, you'll have to leave now before they find you and put three bullets in your heart, then we'll have to bury you like the other translators who've been killed, like we've heard on the news.

Three guys with machine pistols and guns attacked me inside my house, and of course they knew I was an interpreter. First they stole everything. They took all my money. I said to them: "Take anything you want, just leave my family alone." And they said: "No, we're going to take your son." Imagine the terror of that!

CORBIN: Other countries like Denmark have given all their interpreters asylum. After a public outcry the UK has now promised to let some settle in Britain.

TRANSLATOR: We feel that the British forces are responsible for our lives. We need asylum in any country but if I had a choice, I hope that it will be in the UK.

CORBIN: But the requirements are very restrictive, and to register, many interpreters have to get to UK embassies outside Iraq. There's no guarantee the men I met in Syria will be able to come to Britain.

What do you feel the British government owe you?

TRANSLATOR: What do they owe me? They owe me a lot.

CORBIN: They owe you a safe refuge.

TRANSLATOR: Yes, if not for me, then at least for my children, for my family. All I want is a peaceful life, a decent life for my family.

CORBIN: I tackled the Commander of British Forces in Basra about the fate of those who had worked for the UK Government.

How does the army feel about those people that worked for them?

Major General GRAHAM BINNS
Commander, British Forces in Iraq
Well I think, as the government has indicated, we're discharging our moral obligation to the people that have supported us over the last 4 years and the government's announced its policy and I think it's entirely sensible.

CORBIN: To date not a single interpreter has actually been offered resettlement in the UK. In fact, reports suggest that over 100 have so far been rejected, for not meeting the criteria. There are some signs of optimism in Basra despite years of terror. Families are out and about here in the city's only park. Most political and militia groups, including the Mahdi army, have now pledged to work together for peace in Basra. The British are proposing a big investment drive, but Basra will only thrive if it can end the malign influence of the militias. General Jalil's cleanup of the police force is having an effect. Overall murder rates have halved since June. He's become a hero to his men for taking on the extremists who talk of honour while killing women. What future do they really want for Basra.

Basra Police Chief
Isn't it a dishonour to kill people? Isn't it a dishonour to steal the wealth of the state? Aren't theft, murder and plundering the wealth of the people in Basra also dishonour? Is honour only about women?

CORBIN: In little Iraq in Syria the exiles are waiting to see if their new security chief can deliver the peace the British couldn't bring to Basra. But there's bad news for one of our interpreters. His asylum application has just been rejected. He only worked for the British for 7 months, not the 12 demanded. His money and visa are running out, but if he returns to Basra, he risks being murdered.

TRANSLATOR: Gordon Brown said he would help the interpreters, but how can you make a distinction between someone who worked for the British for 3 months or 3 years? The militia don't see it like that. They will assassinate all the interpreters even if they only worked for the British for a month.

CORBIN: People are beginning to return to Iraq, but none of the families we met feel it's safe to go home while the militias still have a stranglehold on Basra.

TRANSLATOR: Iraq is finished, the Iraq we knew with its dignity intact, this Iraq is finished, we're finished. There's no future left for us. We just hope we can live abroad?

CORBIN: Most people in Basra are grateful to the British for freeing them from Saddam, but for some the legacy we will leave is a bitter one.

What do you think the British have brought to Basra, what will they leave behind?

TAROUB: Misery. They didn't do... I mean.. they didn't do much, this is the question I was thinking about, you know, why did they come? Why? To oust Saddam Hussein, okay, he's gone, I'm next. That's the whole.. big question, or that's the question that everybody is asking - why?

With special thanks to the men and women of Basra we are unable to name, but who risked their lives so that we could hear and show their stories.

JEREMY VINE: Jane Corbin reporting there, and that's the last Panorama of the year. We really hope you've enjoyed what you've been watching from us. We're back on January the 7th for a film no parent will want to miss.

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