Monday, March 16, 2009

Iraq: the war is not won yet - Metro


In the first of a series of reports from Basra as British forces prepare to return home from Iraq, chief reporter Aidan Radnedge discovers there is still danger in the air despite recent peace-keeping progress.

The familiar EastEnders drumbeat was accompanied by a more ominous sound - the rumble of rockets hitting the British HQ at Basra.

Dozens of British troops who had thought their war was finally over hurled themselves to the concrete floor as they watched television.

Metro photographer Andy Blackmore and I were with the soldiers as the main coalition base at Basra's old airport was targeted for the second time in just three days.

Yet British forces had been relatively confident the major dangers were over in the area.

Murders in Basra were down from 22 in January to 11 last month - and blamed largely on common criminals rather than terrorists.

A year ago - and after a British withdrawal from the main city centre to a base 15km (nine miles) away - there was incessant bloodshed.

Once, troops were battered by 56 rockets in just five minutes.

Last Monday, hours before our arrival, three rockets hurtled into the airport, killing a newly-recruited Pakistani civilian worker.

Three days later, as we waited to fly back to Britain - alongside many soldiers ending their tour of duty or heading for a break - four more rockets fell.

The servicemen and women's reaction blended caution, concern and humour. 'Hurry up, we're missing Casualty,' muttered one while sprawling face-down as both the sirens and the British Forces Broadcasting Service TV played on.

Before last Monday, the previous attack on the airbase had been a solitary rocket that landed in December. Moqtada al-Sadr's Shia militia, the Mahdi Army, has dwindled from 2,500 members 12 months ago to an estimated 200 today.

Iyad, 22, a shopkeeper in Leaf Island just outside Basra, said: 'The situation is much safer now. We don't have problems any more from bombs - or the British army.'

Maj Gen Andy Salmon, commander of British forces in Iraq, raised some eyebrows last month by boasting about Basra now being 'safer than Manchester'.

'Then again, there aren't 30,000 troops on the streets of Manchester,' one British soldier pointed out. Not that everyone is delighted by such relative tranquillity - some of the younger, rawer recruits have been disappointed, especially those on their first tours of duty.

Instead of the ferocious gun and grenade battles earlier units experienced, the emphasis has been on patrols, building schools and bridges, and handing out goodwill gifts.

'I was well up for it, ready to go out and do some business,' said 19-year-old Pte Matt Little, from Woking in Surrey. 'I'm a little disappointed, to be honest.'

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