Friday, April 24, 2009

You British should be proud for giving our children a future - The Sun


THEY are laughing families enjoying fairground rides and ice creams in a scene familiar to millions of us.

But this is war-ravaged Basra in Iraq, which until last year was one of the most violent places on Earth. Where a bloody insurgency once raged, shoppers now pack the pavement cafes and busy souks overlooking the River Euphrates.

Like many here, dad-of-three Mohammed Qassim, 35, credits British forces with achieving this cherished new peace. Tucking into buffalo liver at a floating restaurant on the nearby Shatt al-Arab waterway, he insisted: “I say to British soldiers and their families, ‘Many, many thanks. You should be very proud, you have given our children a future’.”

Speaking over George Michael’s Careless Whisper playing on the restaurant stereo, the executive with Al-Mirbad radio, who earns £540 a month, added: “No one wanted foreign forces to come here — we are a proud people.

“But it was the only way we could get rid of Saddam Hussein. We now have democracy and no one can tell the people who will be their leader.”

Seven miles from the river, across a windswept plain of salt flats and oil slicks, is Basra airport, where Britain’s combat troops are packing their kits ready to come home.

RAF padre John Ellis, 45, spends a quiet moment reading the 179 British names engraved on polished brass plaques on a memorial wall.

A Union flag flutters over the red brick wall which bears the quotation from The Bible: “Honourable age does not depend on length of days, nor is the number of years a true measure of life.”

The squadron leader with 903 Expeditionary Air Wing told me: “Many of us here have friends’ names displayed here.”

Pointing towards polished brass plaques, John said: “I knew him... I knew him... and I knew him. Memories have been made here and people want to keep hold of those memories.”

Nodding towards Basra’s gleaming international airport, revamped with British military know-how, he added: “People want to leave well — and acknowledge things have been achieved.”
British forces rolled into Basra in April 2003, greeted by rapturous cheers from some locals.
This mainly Shiite Muslim city had long been a target for Sunni dictator Saddam’s repression.

UK troops then fought against a bloody Iranian-backed insurgency and their roadside bombs.
In March last year the Iraqi army — backed by British and US forces — launched an operation to smash the militias.

Since then there has been an uneasy calm in Basra, though some parts of Iraq continue to come under attack by insurgents, as yesterday’s suicide bombings show.

But university lecturer Dr Juliana Dawood Jousif, 52, told me that, despite the carnage: “The war was worth it. We would never have got rid of Saddam’s regime otherwise.

“I appreciate the British Army changed the lives of many Iraqis for the better.

“It’s sad these people had to come to Basra and lose their lives for something they aren’t responsible for.”

Youth worker Shatha Ibrahim, 32, helps local school leavers find work training schemes. She said: “If you disagreed with Saddam, you were not safe. His guys would follow you until you were dead. Then, under the militias, women were not leaving our homes much.

“In the street and in the markets they would tell us to wear the veil and not to wear make-up or jeans. Now we have picnics by the river and we can wear whatever we want.”

Today there is a housing boom in this battle-scarred city. One home recently sold for 500,000 dollars (around £340,000).

The markets, including the Al Fursi tented souk, are bustling.

Women — most in black hijab headscarf and flowing dishdasha robes — were happy to be photographed as they picked up bargain tight blue jeans and lingerie.

A new five-star hotel will open in the next few months as Western businesses look to invest. British tourists have even returned to this battered city of more than a million people.

But retired archaeologist Bridget Jones, 77, from London, who visited recently, conceded: “It wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea.”

Since 2003 UK taxpayers have pumped £740million into reconstruction and development here. Critics say some of the cash poured into the city was frittered away by corruption.

Mother-of-two Dr Jousif continued: “Corruption here is rife and needs to be tackled. What we need in Basra now is big foreign companies to invest in electricity, sewerage and roads.”

Despite sitting on some of the world’s most abundant oil reserves, the city is still impoverished. Unemployment is 30 per cent, the canals are clogged with fetid raw sewage, electricity is in short supply and few have drinkable running water.

Yet natural gas worth £28million a day is simply burned off because Iraqi firms do not have the technology to tap it.

Development Secretary Douglas Alexander told The Sun: “There is still work to be done but real improvements are being made to electricity supplies, to water supplies and the sewage system.”
Families who fled Iraq during the bloody turmoil are now coming home.

Barber Mozed Muyad, 38, escaped to Sweden after religious fanatics among the militias began butchering hairdressers. One barber was killed with electric drills because the fanatics believe shaving beards to be un-Islamic.

Mozed has been able to re-start his business, hiring two workers, thanks to a business loan from the coalition’s Provincial Reconstruction Team. The barber, who earns up to £80 a day, revealed: “I had to run because they had killed a barber friend of mine. Now I’ve got more than enough work and want to expand again.”

The Department for International Development has earmarked more than £1.3million for a further 1,200 business start-ups.

For 4,100 British troops, combat operations end in a few weeks. A small force will remain to train the Iraqi army and navy. Locals insist our troops should receive a heroes’ welcome on their return to the UK.

The turbaned imam at the sprawling Moosawi Mosque in Basra’s centre hit out at last month’s protests by extremists in Luton who labelled British troops the “butchers of Basra”.
Standing beside the vast domes of the mosque which can hold 11,000 worshippers, Abdul Al Moosawi, 49, said: “We appreciate the sacrifice British troops made in bringing democracy to our country.

“Saddam had a sick mind but the British and Americans changed the regime for good.
“I thank the parents of these soldiers for the sacrifice their children made and ask God to send their souls to paradise.”

The plaques to the fallen at Basra airport will be dismantled and rebuilt among the tranquillity of the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas, Staffs.

And their courage will never be forgotten among the smiling families at the funfair in Basra.

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