Saturday, January 24, 2009

Basra rediscovers hope after years of war as British prepare to leave - Telegraph

Basra rediscovers hope after years of war as British prepare to leave

By Nick Meo in Basra

Strolling with his wife on Basra's corniche as a refreshing breeze blew in from the Shatt al-Arab waterway, Aladeen Hassan observed that a year ago enjoying this simple pleasure would have been to invite death.

"If I had come here with my wife then we would have been killed or abducted for sure," Mr Hassan said with a grin. "But now we come here all the time and in the afternoon it is so crowded you cannot find a seat in the cafes.

"Basra has been reborn. The militias have gone, the people are happy, and we have our city back again."

For three years until last March, gangs terrorised Iraq's second city and killed British soldiers in its streets. Criminals looted and kidnapped while the religious zealots of the Mahdi Army enforced a harsh Islamic rule. The streets were so dangerous that Mr Hassan's wife, Thana, spent nearly six years locked in their tiny flat.

"It was like being a prisoner," she said. She would occasionally dart out to a shop, heavily veiled for protection in case she ran into militiamen.

Now Mrs Hassan dares to go out in public wearing makeup, although her modest black abaya still covers her hair and she is careful to wear black gloves.

Elsewhere on the corniche, the walkway along the Shatt al-Arab that is the heart of Basra's social life, courting couples flirt discreetly. Some even dare to hold hands as they watch boats, or come at dusk to gaze romantically at the sun setting behind the date palm groves on the far bank of the waterway.

The mood has lifted business too in the city, raising hopes of reconstruction and an economic takeoff financed by Iraqi oil. It has even fuelled a property boom, perhaps the only one in the world right now, with top-end house prices almost doubling over the last year.

British troops still patrol the city from time to time but security is now in the hands of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police who have flooded Basra's filthy streets ahead of provincial elections next weekend.

Security may be better in the sprawling city of more than one million, but stagnant pools remain in the rutted streets and piles of rubbish are strewn in bazzars, slums and even the best residential areas.

Adding to the chaos, walls, lamp-posts and vehicles are plastered with posters of the candidates. Most are well-fed men in suits, not the scowling fundamentalists in turbans whose stars are waning. A quarter of the candidates are women. Hopes are high that the militia-linked candidates will get nowhere and instead a new and energetic set of politicians will be voted in to run the city.

If that happens and violence is minimal the remaining Iraqi businessmen and professionals who fled abroad when the anarchy was at its worst will return. A peaceful election will also give a green light to hundreds of foreign companies who are ready to move in to the oil-rich province.

The transformation of Basra after almost three decades on the frontline of a series of wars is now a real possibility.

Many Basrans can still hardly believe that their long nightmare could really be over.

Last January Sammi Alta'ee, a 27-year-old translator for British troops, had decided that his only chance of a future was to somehow escape Iraq.

"I'd had enough," he said. "The police were being bullied by the militias, who were so violent and had better weapons than the police. I thought at that time that there was no hope for Iraq and my friends all thought the same.

"Yet now the violence seems to be over and we are seeing the beginning of real reconstruction in our country at last. The people have turned against the militias. They believe the future is good."

That future has been bought at the price of the lives of 178 British soldiers who have been killed since 2003, some in the initial invasion but most in the traumatic and gruelling guerrilla war that followed but which is now over. Soldiers died or were maimed in mortar attacks on their bases and by sophisticated bombs which shot streams of molten metal through the armour of their vehicles.

Now the Army's role is training their Iraqi counterparts as the British prepare to bring their Basra operation to a close and start leaving Iraq in May. Soldiers on their third and fourth tour barely recognise the city they have been sent back to. Mortar and rocket attacks on the British base in Basra Palace have fallen from five per day a year ago to none since November.

Major Jez Mawdsley, of 26 Regiment, Royal Artillery, said: "We're in the endgame now. The lads want to go to Afghanistan."

The officers talk earnestly about their legacy – of helping topple Saddam, struggling to fill the post-invasion power vacuum, and most importantly, training Iraqi security forces who can keep the peace when they have gone.

Frustratingly for the British though, after years of fighting they had a only a minor role in the military operation ordered by the Iraqi government last March which finally drove out the gangs and allowed the transformation of the city to happen.

Thousands of Iraqi soldiers and their US trainers were ordered to finally grapple with the militias in operation Charge of the Knights. After a few nervous days of bitter fighting the gangs broke. Many of their 2000 or so hardcore fighters were killed and the survivors fled to Iran to join their discredited leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, in exile.

Since then, they have barely been seen in the city, their place taken by Iraqi security forces mainly trained and equipped at great expense by the Americans. After the militias were forced out their support evaporated among a population who feared them and were sick of their violence. Few Basrans want them back, although there are fears that the extremists could try again if the new mood of optimism is not bolstered by the reconstruction which was promised in 2003 but never happened.

Now it should do.

The Americans who are increasingly turning up to replace the British in bases in the south have bigger budgets and no war to distract them from reconstruction. They are determined to seal their victory and win hearts and minds by rebuilding.

Captain Robert Lansden, a US Navy captain who arrived in Basra two months ago to construct a bridge, put the American philosophy succinctly.

He said: "Once you've finished killing the bad guys, it's time to spread the love."

click here for the full report on the Telegraph website

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