by Greg Palkot
This is my 13thvisit to Iraq. But my first in two years. When Anastasia asked me if I wanted to go, I said sure. There was much to catch up on. And besides, I’d be doing it with my good buddy and veteran of countless hot spots with me — cameraman Pierre Zakrzewski. And a nice native New Yorker, producer Marcia Biggs.
Our first stop is the southern city of Basra. I’d been there a few times under Saddam, and a few times after. And it hasn’t been so hot under either guise… it’s a big sprawling marshy port city which always seems to have more garbage in the streets than redeeming features.
It does have one very redeeming feature though: oil. Just about more than anywhere in the world. When you see the place though you can’t believe it. It could be Houston. It ain’t.
It’s been run by the Brits since the fall of Saddam in 2003, and that’s one of the reasons we are down here. The UK is leaving this spring, and the U.S., already overstretched and trying to get itself out of Iraq, has to cover this place as well.
Our assessment is, touch wood, it should be OK. Basra had been relatively calm for several years after 2003. In summer 2005, in fact, I made my last trip to Basra. Folks were eating ice cream cones along the waterfront and families were enjoying amusement park rides.
Then, as things happen in Iraq, the place turned into a blood-drenched maelstrom. Iran-backed militia ran the city, made everyone’s lives hell, and turned the place into a shooting gallery.
It finally took tons of Iraqi armed forces backed mostly by the US to rein the place in. Now, it’s in pretty good shape, tightly wired down by a lot of new and improved Iraqi units.
The hitch, as I noted in my report, is the place that still has a host of social ills: unemployment, lack of services, run-down infrastructure. If the new local government doesn’t deal with that, the US is going to have more headaches.
Anyway it’s nice being with the Brits. They’re always so articulate and accommodating and funny. The press officer we dealt with was named “Dickie.” One of his past times was playing cafeteria bingo. He would sit at a different table every time he went to the Mess. He d keep a chart of the dining room in his office and X off the tables he sat in. Don’t ask me why.
The Brits’ food is also always a pleasure. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding just some of the fare we tucked into. I’m not saying American food on US bases is bad. It’s just a little bit… shopping mall. Brit dining room food is more Ye Olde Thatched Cottage.
We spent time with Lt. Chris Coles and his men, who are training up those Iraqi soldiers. They’re living with the Iraqis in their bases inside the city. And it’s pretty urban rough and tight. But they were very pleased to show off the UK troops’ rec room. With the ever present Brit soccer on the big screen.
We went with the Brits (and Iraqis) on a street patrol. All very well conducted. You always notice how well-spaced and carefully choreographed the UK troops are. It’s those long years of Northern Ireland city warfare under their belts. And no helmets. This is how they’d been patrolling the city for much of their stay — until the local thug gangs started to turn on them and set their vehicles on fire. They must be relieved that it’s all settled down. I know I was, not just for myself but for the battle-weary American soldiers taking over here.
As the very upright British Brigadier General Tom Beckett put it to me, “In any mission you have yours ups and downs, but if you persevere you can get through it.”
As for the residents we met on patrol, they were uniformly friendly and appreciative of the troops’ presence. They all said they were happy the militias were no longer there and there was security again. But they also were full of grumbles about what Basra needed. Just like London. What progress.
Probably the high point of our visit with the Brits though was the combat exercise involving Iraqi troops mentored by UK soldiers. It was run on a run-down, abandoned base with nearly live fire. And it was better than “Full Metal Jacket” and “Platoon” all rolled into one.
Or should I say the highpoint for cameraman Pierre, who got to run around the shooting, act like the Energizer Bunny he is, and get up as close as possible to the blasts (his hearing has left him about 8 hot spots ago).
The Americans will be training up the police, which, if the Basra Finest are anything like other police forces in this country, will be anything but an easy job. So, I think it s a bit too early to say that we Yanks will have an easy ride of it. Too often in this tough, sprawling country things have gone from good to bad. But it appears easier than other places we’ ve wandered into.
And again, as I mentioned in my report, the other redeeming feature of all this is that it’ll be a quick exit when the U.S. troops get their final marching orders. Kuwait, the land exit ramp for all American forces in Iraq, is right next door! And McDonald’s is not too far beyond that!