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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 March 2008, 12:09 GMT
The British in Basra: stay or go?
by Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, defence correspondent

Five years on, Basra airbase is almost unrecognisable.

Soldiers in Basra
British soldiers have patrolled Basra province since 2003

From a ramshackle regional airport it has become a fortified sandbag and concrete home to the 4,000 remaining British troops, with a functioning international airport on the side.

Late on Monday night, and three times on Tuesday, the sirens howled their eerie chorus warning of an incoming rocket attack, sending everyone on the base diving for cover until the all-clear came.

Attacks by insurgents may be much reduced since British forces left Basra Palace last autumn, yet they remain an irritant and sometimes a real threat, claiming their last casualty, Sergeant Duane Barwood, on 1 March.

He became the 175th British serviceman to die in Iraq since the invasion.

But morale among the troops remains relatively high.

The British operation in southern Iraq is now officially one of "overwatch", focused on the training and mentoring of Iraqi security forces, who took over responsibility for security in Basra in December.

"The Iraqi army is coming up to a fantastic level," said Lance Bombardier Simon Pooler.

Local families

"They're keen to get in there and they're working hard. They want to take control and we're in the process of giving it back. Our work is almost done here, I'd say."

It's not yet clear if, when, or by how much British troop levels will be reduced.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown had hoped to be able to bring levels down to 2,500 in the spring, depending on military advice.

Patrolling the perimeter of the Basra air station, the RAF Regiment has been in regular contact with local families in the surrounding villages for the past five years.

Mahdi Army militia
Rival militias are vying for control in Basra City

Flight Lieutenant Jules Weekes stands talking to two families, who offer him tea.

"In this current state of play in this country there is a requirement for our presence here and we're doing what we can to the best of our ability to assist the Iraqis in being able to take the country on," he said.

When I ask village elder Halim Hassan whether life is better now than it was under Saddam Hussein, he shakes his head.

"It's little different," says the father-of-eight. "There are not enough jobs, and our life has barely changed."

His neighbour Moslim Jalil agrees: "Crime is worse now - there are murders."

He won't say whether they are committed by militia groups, who are still fighting a vicious turf war for influence and power in Basra City.

They show us a tap installed at the behest of the British, bringing clean water. Its output is little more than a trickle.

Sectarian lines

"They asked contractors to do it, but they didn't do a good job," Halim Hassan sighs.

It is difficult to know whether life has improved in Basra City itself. An opinion poll commissioned by the BBC and ABC showed mixed feelings among the Iraqi people.

Asked whether the security situation in Basra had improved since the British handed over responsibility to Iraqi security forces, the answers divided along sectarian lines.

Of the majority Shia population, 36% said security had improved; 36% said it had not; and 26% said it had stayed the same.

Iraqi Sunnis were less optimistic: 18% said it was better; 46% said worse; while 26% said it had remained the same.

The pressures against women existed under the old regime, but... women are now being killed
Khadija Abdul Kareem

Dr Asa'ad Hasan, who lives in Basra, says people do not feel completely safe either walking the streets or in their own homes.

But he doesn't believe the situation was any better when British forces patrolled the streets, rather than the Iraqi army or police: "They didn't understand the community here in Basra as it is, and they didn't really interact with people."

Women have perhaps been hit hardest by the most recent violence. Estimates suggest that up to 100 women were murdered in Basra last year, mainly for behaviour or dress deemed 'un-Islamic'.

Khadija Abdul Kareem, who works as a civil servant, said: "The violence started with the imposition of the headscarf and rules on specific kinds of clothes.

Iraqi soldier at the Basra Palace compound as British troops leave
British troops began to withdraw from central Basra in September

"The pressures against women existed under the old regime, but the pressures have increased - and women are now being killed.

"Over the past few weeks, since the governor and police chief spoke out against the violence against women, the situation has improved."

Despite the undoubted problems in Basra, the political assessment of the situation from British Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Prentice remains relatively upbeat.

"Overall I'm cautiously optimistic," he told the BBC.

"We've seen the province pass into provincial Iraqi control in December and we've seen evidence that the Iraqi security forces are well capable of meeting the challenges with our support in reserve and our continuing training and mentoring."

Yet many Basra people seem torn on the issue of whether the British should stay or go; the hope is that their own police and army will be up to the task of upholding law and order on their own.

The fear is that they may still not be ready for a showdown with the militias. And as long as these exist, it will be hard for Basra - despite its potential oil wealth - to fulfil the hopes of its people.

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