Sunday, February 1, 2009

At last, election day in Basra - BBC

By Paul Adams

In the sixth instalment of his week-long diary, BBC diplomatic correspondent Paul Adams reports from Basra on the day of the provincial elections.

Election day and for the first time, we leave the old naval base without our British minders. The British military transition team are confined to base on this critical day, so we head out with our Iraqi army escorts.

It is amazing: they have been at our disposal for an entire week now, with barely a grumble.

The Iraqis say they have picked up intelligence of a threat, by a group affiliated to al-Qaeda, to kidnap a British journalist in Basra, so we take extra precautions.

No-one seems to give the warning much credence, but the British tell me to call in every half an hour until we are safely back.

Serious business

We set off in the company of a dozen heavily-armed Iraqi soldiers, through a section of the city they control.

The streets are free of traffic, so our jeeps race along faster than ever. People are walking everywhere, heading for the polls.

The scene at the Farahidi polling station is one of ordered, serious business. Voters look for their names and ration card numbers on lists plastered to the wall outside. A quick security check (the women are led to a blue tent to preserve their modesty) and they are free to go inside and vote.

The army is out in strength. Colonel Haidar el-Azzawi, whose men we have been shadowing all week, is on hand to oversee the security operation. A man who served in Saddam Hussein's army, he is emphatic that Iraqis need to make their own choices.

Overhead, two British Apache attack helicopters circle the city, a reminder that help is at hand, should the Iraqi army need it.

But no-one looks up. The British presence in their city has ceased to be a source of aggravation (there are only 200 British soldiers inside the city, with a handful of armoured vehicles) and they have other, more pressing things on their minds.

Electricity, drinkable water, accountable politics. The raw sewage lying in puddles in the middle of Iraq's second largest city.

The Brits are watching them, though. A successful round of elections means that British troops are one step closer to coming home, according to objectives set by Prime Minister Gordon Brown last summer.

We return to our barracks, to find the lads of the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment watching football, playing chess, pulling weights and working out on the treadmills. Their time here is drawing to a close.

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