Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Firearms at the Funfair? Not in Basra! - Sky

By Goeff Meade

Everything about him defined resolute. Neat-trimmed grey moustache and piercing eyes glaring from beneath his white Arab head dress. Having survived Saddam's tyranny, war with Iran, foreign invasion and civil conflict - there was no way he was going to let this latest armed threat pass through his checkpoint.

There he stood, just one individual defying the might of a score of heavily-armed soldiers from four armoured Humvees whose turrets swung ominously as their machine gunners pondered what to do next.

And all we were attempting was a trip to a fun fair. Yet, tooled up with enough firepower to start a small war, we were thwarted by Ali, the ticket man.

To demonstrtate how much normality had returned to the streets of Iraq's second city, a year after Baghdad's soldiers wrested control from hard line Shia militias, the military took us on a convoy downtown.

It felt surreal enough as snugged into ceramic body armour and peering beneath a kevlar helmet, we stepped into the neon lights of Basara's "Fun City". Assailed by traditional music, the waft of a dozen kebab stalls and the shrill exitement of children's birthday celebrations, we were eager to sample this slice of Friday night, Basra style.

Just one obstacle barred our way. He was manning the turnstile taking money from the crowds who thronged to the bright lights and thrill of the only place to party.

In the austere years of mullah-dominated rule all this was frowned on and forbidden. Women daring to venture uncovered in public could be beaten. Secular music was banned. Good times were strictly off the agenda.

These days the 1.7m Baswaris are making up for lost years, enjoying the peace and relative prosperity the region's oil wealth promises. New shopping centres teem with trade and pavement cafes are busy with customers sipping strong cofee, sucking on water pipes and enjoying people-watching in the balmy Spring evenings.

But memories of violence that cost hundreds of lives and touched many families were just too raw for Fun City's gate guardian to let a platoon kitted like stormtroopers spoil the mood. It was nothing to do with the money. He just flatly refused to allow more than two soldiers into his theme park.

A compromise was struck. Whilst our US Special Forces host and his protecting entourage kept their distance, I was allowed to circulate among the fairground with for company just cameraman Richie Mockler and an Iraqi red-beret cradling a machine gun and festooned with a bandolier of bullets.

No wonder the owner of the shooting gallery looked worried.

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