Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ex-war zone prepares for election - BBC

Paul Adams
BBC News, in Basra

In the second instalment of his week-long diary, BBC diplomatic correspondent Paul Adams joins Iraqi troops as they patrol an area repeatedly hit by conflict but now preparing for elections.

Another pre-dawn start as we follow elements of the Iraqi 14th Division down to Safwan, on the Kuwaiti border.

This is where we used to come in and out of Iraq in 2003-04, before the road became too dangerous.

A bright orange sun rises, spectacularly, behind the fierce gas flares of a nearby oil field.

It is a spectacular sight but the convoy sweeps on and my cameraman, Fred, can only dream of what might have been.

Once again, the area is swarming with Iraqi soldiers, but this time there is no specific target.

Col Haidar of the 1st Battalion, 50 Brigade, says it is just a show of strength before Saturday's important provincial elections.

A police counterpart arrives on the scene and the atmosphere is briefly frosty - when the Iraqi army took on Basra's militiamen during intense fighting last spring, two of Col Haidar's men were killed by policemen allied to the militias.

It still rankles.

But food arrives, chairs are provided and the mood lightens. In one of this week's more improbable moments, we eat a breakfast of kebabs in the middle of the busy highway, army jeeps and heavily armed guards ranged about to stop the traffic.

Col Haidar is a veteran soldier and he speaks with a rueful smile of being one of the first Iraqi soldiers into Kuwait during Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion (which triggered the first Gulf War).

Bloodshed and hardship

Safwan has seen armies come and go since then.

The retreating Iraqis were harried by coalition forces as they were bundled out of Kuwait in 1991 (some of the military wreckage which litters the desert around here almost certainly dates from that harrowing episode).

A dozen years later, coalition forces raced north from the same stretch of border. Local people watched and waved and the British imagined that this might not be so hard.

Now, after almost six years of bloodshed and great hardship, the British are getting ready to leave.

The mentoring team I am embedded with will probably be gone within weeks and the huge logistical task of evacuating the British headquarters out at the airport has already begun.

A few miles to the west, we can see trucks moving south along Route Topeka, the coalition's main supply route from Kuwait. By June and July, it will be even busier.

Back in Basra, we pause to take in streets festooned with garish election posters.

A bewildering array of candidates and lists gazes down on the city, but the population seems cynical about the ability of politicians to improve their lot.

Fred's camera comes out and soon we are surrounded by an animated crowd, bombarded from all sides by passionately held views on politics and the war. Are the British entitled to leave with honour, I ask?

The response is decidedly mixed. Yes, Tony Blair and George Bush brought us a kind of democracy, they say, but what good has it really done us?

British and Iraqi soldiers look on from a polite distance, but no-one interferes and the Basrawis are free to speak their minds.

Click here to see the article on BBC Online

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