Page last updated at 06:11 GMT, Thursday, 30 April 2009 07:11 UK
UK combat operations end in Iraq

As British troops leave Basra in southern Iraq, the BBC's John Simpson takes a look at the city they will be leaving behind.

British soldier with children in Basra on 29/4/09
British forces have been based in Basra for the last six years

Basra has a very different feel from the rest of Iraq.

It has got 4,000 years of trading links with the outside world. It is also almost exclusively Shia Muslim - so there are no clashes with Sunni Muslims, unlike in divided Baghdad, where the vicious civil war continues.

Basra is doing well. Yet the same old problems remain.

People made a beeline to tell us what was wrong here.

The water supply has been cut off for four days, one woman told us.

There are daily power cuts, another said. That means no air conditioning, though Basra is sweltering now, close to 38C (100F).

Six years on, people here still cannot understand how two of the world's richest countries, Britain and America, could invade Iraq and not manage to improve the basic living standards of the population.

We went to visit a middle-ranking civil servant, Bassim Mohammed Baji, and his family. By Iraqi standards their house was quite spacious. He was embarrassed to tell me that he worked in the ministry of power. So why the power cuts, I asked? "Corruption," he shrugged. "It is everywhere here."

His wife, Ghalia, was worried about altogether different things. It is still not possible for her to go shopping in the streets of Basra when the evening comes on, unless her husband is with her. A lone woman can be shouted at, insulted, even physically attacked.

Security was a lot better now, she agreed, but she still had to take the children to school every day, to act as their bodyguard. Kidnapping remains a problem.

Fragile calm

But some things are a lot better. The administration of justice, for instance. Trials and legal hearings are quicker, more efficient, less corrupt and fairer.

It is still a novelty in this male-dominated society for women to be judges, but Suad Nasir Hasan, a firmly spoken, self-assured woman in her 40s, has made the breakthrough.

Iraq map

All judges were subject to threats, she said, but women were under a particular threat because some men thought tradition was above the law - and in Iraq that meant men still believed they were the boss. There was plenty of resistance to change here still, she said.

But there is one overriding change for the better in Basra.

Ever since March of last year, when the Iraqi government staged its so-called Charge of the Knights operation to break the power of the various militia groups here, the streets are no longer controlled by shadowy gangs of armed men.

As I wandered around the streets of central Basra at 2130, I reflected that only 13 months ago such a thing would have been wholly unthinkable.

I stopped and talked to a group of men sitting at a table outside a tea-house, drinking small glasses of heavily sweetened tea.

"The Charge of the Knights has given us back our city," one of them said. "Our lives are immensely better now."

It is true, and yet the peace and calm can be quite fragile.

Shortly after we left, a joint British-Iraqi army patrol came along the street.

An Iraqi man armed with a knife lunged at one of the Iraqi soldiers. There were gunshots, and the man was injured.

It was a trivial enough incident. But it was also a reminder that peace and prosperity are still some way off in Basra.

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