Friday, March 20, 2009
AS I walked through the streets of Basra with the Queens Royal Hussars it soon became clear just how much the city had changed.
Soldiers told me that, if I had been walking with them on the same route two years ago, I would have been shot at as a matter of routine.
But instead of the crack of bullets, I heard the sound of children running around the 20- strong patrol, giggling and laughing at the men in strange uniforms.
The universal language on the streets was football and it didn’t take long before children in Manchester United and Barcelona shirts started shouting players’ names at me. The names Ronaldo, David Beckham, Raul, and even Villa’s captain Gareth Barry, were bellowed at me as if the kids were trying to pass on some absurd secret.
In return I mustered “Salam”, Arabic for hello, before reeling off every player’s name I could think of.
Unfortunately Lee Bowyer and Alex McLeish were greeted with blank faces.
The reaction on the streets to the joint Iraqi and British patrol was a sign of the huge leaps forward made by both forces.
The Iraqis looked professional, determined and well drilled and needed only minimal guidance from the Hussars, many of whom come from the West Midlands. The British soldiers, wearing 15kg body armour and soft hats, chatted to the locals and offered small gifts such as wristbands.
The threat of roadside bombs and even kidnapping was still very real but the feeling on the streets was that life was getting better and more improvements were on the way. But there are still hundreds of people living in poverty with litter filling the streets and children as young as three playing just metres away from open sewers.
The army has done a lot to improve things compared to the days of Saddam Hussein but the city desperately needs rebuilding so its people can live in comfort and safety. The Iraqi soldier I was shadowing, a 20-year old man, told me the Iraqis liked the British due to the historical link dating back to the 1920s.
The British troops hope they will not now be needed in the country for at least the same period of time again.