Page last updated at 04:41 GMT, Friday, 30 January 2009

Basra aiming to turn the corner

By Paul Adams
BBC News, Basra

Sgt Maj Jim Leech visiting the HQ
Troops are based in an unfinished hotel in Basra

In the fourth instalment of his week-long diary, BBC diplomatic correspondent Paul Adams meets the people preparing for the weekend's elections.

Another chance to see the British mentors in action this morning as we visit an Iraqi army battalion headquarters downtown. The 1-50 are housed in a building that should have been a hotel but was never finished.

It is in a sorry state, roof tiles sagging, broken windows, whole rooms upstairs full of rubbish. The water in the swimming pool is an evil shade of green.

But Sgt Maj Jim Leech is not interested in niceties. He wants to know how the base is organised. He casts an experienced soldier's eye over the storeroom and clinic and makes suggestions on how things can be done better. He is unfailingly polite and never remotely patronising.

In a one-time bathroom, grenade launchers are piled in a wooden box. But the gun racks are clean and labelled - everything is checked in and out. Sgt Maj Leech seems satisfied.

Truck loads of 1-50 soldiers are loading sleeping bags and personal kit onto their jeeps. They are off to guard the outer perimeters of polling stations across the city, ahead of Saturday's important provincial elections.

'Critical point'

We drive off, along streets smothered in campaign posters, to a meeting with Hatem el-Bachary, who is heading an independent list and hoping to pick up a few of the 35 seats up for grabs in Basra.

A genial businessman, with company offices in Bradford, he says it is time to invest in the city's future because people are disappointed with what Iraq's politicians have achieved so far.

Sgt Maj Jim Leach between two British Mastiff armoured vehicles

"This is a very critical point in the democracy of Iraq," he tells me. "They have already wasted five or six years."

Hatem looks out over a fetid canal that runs beside his park and says he dreams of turning Iraq's second largest city into something people can be proud of. He speaks with real passion, but the task is daunting. The city does not seem to have changed much in appearance since I first came here in late 2003.

This evening, we drive into the teeming heart of the city, into streets that have come alive. A year ago, with the city held hostage by fundamentalist militias, Basra was dead after dark. But the government took on the militias and now, despite Basra's myriad problems, the city seems to have turned a corner - for the time being at least.

Hatem is out campaigning. His young team have set up a projector on a corner of broken kerb stones, and a small crowd of curious onlookers is blocking the traffic.

For a man with big ambitions, it is an embarrassing affair. There are endless problems with the projector and the sound, and the screen keeps being blown over in the breeze. Hatem does not seem in the least bit fazed and says it is important for politicians to be out on the street, meeting real people.

It is hard to see how he can break the power of the larger parties in Basra, but he is full of optimism. We leave as the sound system is finally fixed and his campaign song - which seems to consist mainly of his name, repeated over and over - blends with the car horns and bustle of night time Basra.



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