Friday, January 30, 2009

Lessons learned on Basra streets - BBC Online

Paul Adams
BBC News, Basra

In the third instalment of his week-long diary, BBC diplomatic correspondent Paul Adams joins US military police as they mentor local officers.

A change of scene this morning, as we're taken to watch the Americans at work. Basra may have been at the heart of the British operation since 2003, but the Americans are here too, doing similar work.

At the Saudia police station in Brehah neighbourhood, we catch up with a squad of military police (MPs) from Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

They're mentoring local policemen, just as our British hosts, a Military Transition Team, are working with the Iraqi army.

'Getting out'

We follow Sgt Collier's men as they shadow an Iraqi patrol down the road to a polling station where members of the security forces - army and police - are already voting in provincial elections (the rest of the population votes on Saturday, and we'll be there to watch).

The streets of this residential neighbourhood are quiet. The American MPs have all seen much more dangerous neighbourhoods during tours elsewhere in Iraq. They seem happy enough to be down in Basra.

They know their British colleagues are getting ready to leave, but there's no apparent resentment.

"You guys are smart. You're getting out early," says a young MP.

Lt Aaron Webb is more circumspect.

"I think it's a false impression. Both our countries have their own timetable when they want to step out of Iraq."

In a spartan, smoke filled office at the police station, another MP is trying to get his head around a complicated crime involving rape, honour and revenge.

There are cultural issues to understand ("Do Christians do honour killings?") and basic policing to check ("Is the prisoner being properly protected?"). The young man from Fort Bragg struggles to take it all in his stride.

Professional pride

From here we drive through the teeming streets of downtown Basra for lunch with 1 Batt, 50 Brigade. Col Haidar is our host and they've pulled out all the stops. A long table groans with platters of rice, lamb and fish.

But the Colonel seems preoccupied. One of his many mobile phones rings constantly.

Almost all his men are out guarding polling stations days ahead of the elections. He knows that even if there is no violence, this weekend is a test of the army's organisational skills.

He also allows himself a little nostalgia. He doesn't express any views on Saddam Hussein (and I'm not about to ask), but he's full of professional pride and he misses being part of a real army.

Back at the old navy base where 50 Brigade and our British transition team share spartan accommodation, most of the men are relaxing. There's physical training to perform, and perhaps a game of volleyball on a malodorous patch of dirt behind our building.

For the article on BBC Online click here

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