Friday, November 7, 2008

Basra 'Won't Be The Same Again'

Lisa Holland, Foreign affairs correspondent

If British troops pull-out from Basra next spring it will be just over six years since the war in Iraq began.

British servicemen and Iraqi children near Basra

British servicemen try to win the support of the local children near Basra

That's been six long years of occupation for the people of Basra and beyond - an occupation although not planned this way - which has meant an end to ordinary life.

It's meant insecurity, fear and rising unemployment as the militias battled with British forces and each other to exert their influence.

For years it meant a life of never quite knowing whether a gun battle could happen down your street at any moment.

And it was an occupation that changed the character of a city.

The situation has changed dramatically in Basra since the Iraqi government took on the local militias earlier this year. As a result, the British presence in Basra could be all over by next summer. Sky's chief correspondent Stuart Ramsay

Basra used to be a place where people would travel to from neighbouring Kuwait for a beer or just an evening out.

It was a place where female students walked the streets happily in a fashionable mini-skirt - unafraid of the religious fundamentalists who came to exert such influence in recent times.

It's been a long road which began with a honeymoon period for British forces.

In the beginning they used to be able to walk the streets wearing so-called 'soft' berets. Those days soon disappeared.

The British used to have their headquarters down town in an old palace of Saddam Hussein.

The soldiers I went on patrols with called the road out of the palace into town Death Alley.

By June 2006 things were so bad they told me that seven out of ten patrols were hit by some kind of attack - everything from sniper fire to a roadside bomb.

When you got back to base even the toughest of soldiers must surely have heaved a private sight of relief - there was no doubt you took your life in your hands just leaving the base.

Progress has most certainly been made. And it is considerable.

180 generic back of british troops in basra

British troops in Basra

In March this year Iraqi security forces fought fierce gun battles with powerful Shi'ite militias in Basra in a major operation aimed at bringing the southern oil city under government control.

It was a critical test of the training they had undergone at the hands of British forces and of the political will of Mr al Maliki to take on the militias who for so long had undermined his control of the country.

It was a pivotal moment. Iraqi security forces passed the test and life in Basra turned a corner.

Things are slowly changing back but life will never be the same again.

For the Iraqi people the hope is that the promises of those invading forces of the spring of 2003 to deliver a better life might finally be round the corner.

Just as long as the militias haven't simply been biding their time until the last Hercules transporter plane takes off from Basra carrying the last of Britain's fighting forces with them.

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