Saturday, December 20, 2008

Basra enjoys peace as British troops prepare to leave - Telegraph

By Damien McElroy, Foreign Affairs Correspondent

"Last year the situation was completely different," said Saad Al Atabi, the al-Fayhaa receptionist. "We didn't receive a single wedding booking because of the situation in our city. Now we are getting about 10 couples every week."

Less than a year ago, the city stood in thrall to the murderous power of rival gangs of militant thugs, who enforced a vicious reign of terror over anybody who dared challenge their authority.

Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army, supported by Iran, imposed strict religious clothes on women and people avoided large gatherings in case of bomb attacks.

Now, with Basra's inhabitants once again walking the streets in comparative safety, Britain has been able to announce its withdrawal from the city after nearly six years of occupation.

The transformation is the fruit of Charge of the Knights, an Iraqi government operation in March, to wrest control of the city back from the warring gangs and clans.

It was one of the greatest successes achieved by Iraq's armed forces since Saddam Hussein's army was disbanded in summer 2003, and was followed by joint British-Iraqi patrols to maintain order.

The patrols marked an improvement in relations after the Iraqi government blamed Britain for allowing the Mahdi army to gain so much power.

While city residents are keen to assert their new found sense of normality, however, it is clear that problems still run very deep. The unemployed youths who last year joined militias are still angry and disaffected.

And although the British Army is pulling out, it will be replaced by American troops, who will be supporting Iraqi forces.

However, with greater security, city services - including the basic provision of water, electricity and rubbish collection - have improved.

"The atmosphere in Basra is no different to that in any normal Middle Eastern city," said one official serving in Basra. "Shops are open for business, roads are being mended, goods are stacked up on the pavements."

The city's once celebrated Corniche again throngs with families in the evenings. A ferris wheel turns above the Shatt al-Arab, the long water way running from the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates down to the Gulf. Floating restaurants have been re-opened.

Read the full article on the Telegraph website

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