Monday, April 20, 2009
By Rupert Hamer
A YEAR AGO, WOMEN IN BASRA WERE KILLED JUST FOR WEARING MAKE-UP. AS OUR TROOPS PREPARE TO PULL OUT AT LAST, IT'S A CASE OF..
Sitting on a swing in the cool night air of Basra, 14-year-old Asha reveals the dream she shares with many girls her age around the world... she wants to be a model.
Just 12 months ago it would have been an impossible, even fatal ambition in a city where Muslim militias executed women for daring to wear make-up or jeans.
But as British troops prepare to pull out of Iraq's second city, things are very different.
Asha says: "For a whole year I could not go to school. It was too dangerous. We lived opposite an Iraqi police station and later in the occupation there was shooting there all the time.
"Now I am back at school. It is peaceful. When I leave I want to be a model. It is something I have always wanted. And now maybe I will have a chance." Her mother Noor, 45, who works for a mobile phone company, recalls with a shudder the year of hell when Basra was under militia control before the Iraqi army regained control with the help of Coalition troops.
She says: "They killed one woman for wearing make-up.
Women were being shot just because they wore jeans." Three years ago I walked round Basra Five Mile Market surrounded by heavily-armed British soldiers.
At the time, I asked my interpreter how long I would last there on my own. He looked at me, smiled shyly and replied: "Two minutes." This week, as I step out of an Iraqi army armoured vehicle at the same spot, I experience a bizarre feeling.
Instead of a platoon of British infantrymen, I have just a handful of escorts wearing berets, their rifles slung carelessly at their sides.
And in place of angry young men with eyes full of hatred, photographer Phil Coburn and I are offered endless glasses of heavily-sugared "chi" as we stroll around the market. The stench of open sewers has been replaced by the fragrant smell of spices and cooking.
Phil and I are beckoned into the shop of shoe-seller Abad Ali Sadam, a 31-year-old father of three. "It has been hard," he says, before gesturing to his packed stalls.
"Once, this place was burnt down, destroyed by the fighting. People were fleeing Basra. But now they are back and we are free. I can buy a car, own my own house, walk with my children. Before, this would have been a dream."
Further on in the market, as his 10-year-old daughter Rogna shyly curls herself around his leg, building contractor Mashtak Gabar, 40, says: "Just coming here was impossible. Then the Iraqi army drove away the militiamen and now life is good. My children can go to school again and there is more money. Just being able to come here with my children, being free to walk around as a family is amazing to us." In 2003 British troops were greet- ed with flowers as they ousted Saddam Hussein's hated regime in Iraq's second city.
But as the Coalition's "peace" plan faltered, flowers Team... gave way to bricks, then bullets, and finally by the roadside bombs that killed so many of our 179 fallen troops. By late 2007 Basra was in the grip of Muslim hardliners led by the Shia firebrand Muqtadr Al Sadr. With mounting casualties, our city bases surrounded and too few troops to retake the city, the
British Army retreated. Many lost faith in the our troops because we left them at the mercy of the militias.
Iraqis were plunged into & Brit what the present British Consul General in Basra Nigel Haywood admits was a "nightmarish" existence. As well as the women murdered for breaking hardline dress codes, barbers were executed just for cutting men's beards. But that all ended a year ago when, on the orders of US commanders, a division of newly-trained Iraqi troops retook Basra.
And now the city can breathe again. Businesses driven away by violence are beginning to return. There are even six off-licences - just a year ago selling alcohol could lead to execution by the miltias.
Today, as we visit the city's picturesque Lebanon's Play Park, the sight of women laughing and joking with their husbands and children is the lasting legacy.
For 4,000 British troops, the change is welcome. When British combat operations officially end here in a few weeks, they can go home.
Major Mark Marshall, 35, who was in Basra in 2004, during some of the fiercest fighting, says: "Then we were getting 100 attacks a day Now we are down to virtually none." Trooper Danny Perrott of the Queen's Royal Hussars, who first came here three years ago, said: "It was incredibly tense in 2006.
Everyone seemed more hostile. But this tour is different. The locals are far calmer, more friendly.
"They wave and give us the thumbs up. Roads are being built and gradually the city is being redeveloped. In 10 years I think Basra will be like Kuwait City. We've done our job. Now it's time to go home."