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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 8 April, 2003, 12:24 GMT 13:24 UK
British take on balancing act in Basra
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online

British forces turned a blind eye to looting in Basra to help demonstrate the fall of the old guard. Their task now is to keep order in the city while inspiring locals to assume the levers of control.

Soldier with 16th Air Assault Brigade
Tentative steps: The British are still defining their role in Basra
While residents of Basra celebrated the end of Saddam Hussein's rule in their city, they may not have expected the lawlessness which accompanied it.

As British infantry moved in on Monday, looters took to the streets, ransacking schools, shops, hospitals and offices.

The British did not intervene. Military commanders wanted to send out the message to locals that the iron rule of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime had collapsed.

But the strategy has stirred anger among many locals, who have already endured 18 days of hardship as their city was laid siege to by coalition forces.

The scenario demonstrates the difficult, and risky, balance British forces are trying to strike in the transition between Saddam's rule and any new authority.

All we're doing today is providing a presence to allow people to feel confident to come out onto the street and do what they want to do
Captain Giles Malec

What exists at the moment is a power vacuum. Many of the old guardians of law and order have gone to ground while the invading force has its work cut out ensuring the city is secure for its troops.

Even if the British wanted to curb some of the more excessive looting and disorder, they remain on a "combat footing" and cannot yet be diverted to deal with civil disturbances.

The challenge facing the troops is how to harness the volatile spirit of insurrection while channelling it in the right direction and keeping a lid on excesses. It is, says former Gulf War commander Chris Lincoln-Jones, a "particularly testing time" for British soldiers.

Amid all this, they will daily be faced with dozens of "judgement calls" - should the British get involved in a situation and run the risk of looking like an imperialist army, or should they leave it to be resolved by locals, thereby facing other competing threats.

Local help

Already, it's possible to discern the British tack - to rely heavily on the cooperation of locals while retaining overall control themselves. An unnamed tribal leader - a "sheikh" - has been lined up to take the reins after coming forward and making himself known to the British command.

Looters on tractor
Looters make off after raiding shops and homes
He is a "man of stature and authority" according to Colonel Vernon and will set up a "broad and representative" committee to run the city. "Who he wishes to come on to that is entirely up to him."

The British, however, will remain "hands on" for some time. And if the sheikh proves "ineffectual, we'll look elsewhere" added Colonel Vernon.

Restoring administration to Basra will be helped by the fact that Iraq already has many of the elements to support an independent civil society, such as trade unions, social clubs, religious institutions and professional associations.

The problem is that Saddam loyalists are tangled into the hierarchies of many of these organisations. While senior members may need to be weeded out, the British seem open to working with some Baath party members. After all, these are the people who know the structures of civil administration.

Former police are also being lined up to go back to work, although they will no longer be allowed to carry weapons.

West: Black Watch, Scots Dragoon Guards, Irish Guards
Centre: 2nd Royal Tank Regiment
North and Docks: Royal Regiment of Fusiliers
South and Palace Area: 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines
Old Town (on foot): 3 Battalion of Parachute Regiment
At the same time, the British will concentrate on securing the city from any remaining militia, before going on to rebuild the physical infrastructure.

Electricity has already been restored to many homes in the area. Next will come water, says Major Lincoln-Jones, and then work will start on repairing the "communications network" - telephones, roads etc.

Many of those involved will be Territorial Army engineers with the Royal Logistics Corps.

But the skills the British possess in a situation such as this are social as well as technical, says Major Lincoln-Jones.

"It is the ability of British troops to mix with locals that helps earn trust. Unlike the Americans our lads are encouraged to go out on the streets, absorb the local culture and strike up conversation with locals."

How willing the people of Basra will to fully embrace them remains to be seen.

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