On every previous visit – and I have made a score or more – it would have been evidence of a death wish to set out without a troop of heavily armoured vehicles, and a platoon of heavily armed soldiers, for company.
But even a few minutes into the drive to downtown Basra, the change in atmosphere was tangible. No longer was there a wince of fear on hearing the detonation of a bomb, or while contemplating where precisely incoming shells would land.
This week, Defence Secretary John Hutton confirmed that the situation in Iraq was “infinitely better” than a year ago, and that most of our 4,100 troops will be home by the end of June. There is, in other words, a sense that our time in the country is drawing to a close – hence the Conservatives’ renewed demand for a full inquiry into the war, once our withdrawal is complete.
So what has happened to bring a rapid end to a mission that was only recently bogged down in a quagmire of insurgency? Amid the drama of Afghanistan, the transformation of Iraq’s second city, which was given to the British to protect and administer after the fall of Saddam Hussein, has gone largely unnoticed. But it is a remarkable one.
“The highlight for me has been going into a mosque in Basra at 10pm with no body armour or pistol, when previously I’d have needed a whole battlegroup of Warriors and Challenger tanks,” Lt Col Simon Browne, whose 2006 tour with the 2nd Bn The Royal Anglians saw some of the worst urban fighting, told me. “Basra is a different city.”