Iraq: 'Basra is now worse than when the British troops arrived'

Six years after the invasion, the BBC's Hugh Sykes reflects on the changing security picture

I've just spent a rewarding and enriching week in Basra – eating in restaurants, visiting shops, interviewing people in markets, driving around. I saw that Basra was mostly worse than it was when I first visited the city after British forces arrived there six years ago.

Basra was once known as the Venice of the East as it has dozens of canals. But there is no romance in them now. They are clogged with sewage and rubbish – household waste, abandoned cars, broken bikes and plastic bottles and bags.

I was able to report objectively from Basra entirely because of the careful planning and immense care of two BBC security advisers who watched my back. They are former soldiers, but are now BBC staff. I mustn't be too precise – but I can say that they are well-equipped to respond to danger. And – more importantly – they carry what they call a "keep you alive" medical kit.

Some of my newspaper colleagues think that even these measures are over the top, but the BBC has had to deal with dreadful incidents in recent years. The Gaza correspondent, Alan Johnston, was kidnapped. In Somalia, a producer, Kate Peyton, was shot dead. A reporter wearing headphones and holding a large microphone is an easy target.

And I do television reports as well. One day I had to walk through a Basra market, talking straight to the camera for two minutes. There is no way I would have done that without someone watching out for me and the cameraman, Nick Woolley.

It's a difficult balancing act – between caution and fear. I think we've got the balance right. It hasn't always been so challenging. The first time I went to Basra, in July 2003 – before the militias and the insurgency had evolved – I went from Baghdad by taxi. But even then I went with a driver trusted by the BBC's Iraqi office manager.

I stayed in a rundown hotel. I might have stayed there again this week, but our security advisers preferred a temporary "hotel" near the British base in the desert – if I'd stayed in that Basra hotel again, one of them would have had to stay up all night on guard. A reasonable compromise, I think.

The "free range" reporting of the early days is the best way, of course – if it's safe.

In the Sheraton Hotel in Baghdad, in 2003, I met a man with a lapel badge: "Iraqi Mothers Relief Organisation". Haithem took me down to Hillah, two hours drive south, to meet people bereaved during the invasion.

I met Riath Hussein, who had been blinded in both eyes by US troops after a misunderstanding at a checkpoint. One American soldier had raised a fist, and shouted "stop". Riath and his brother Faris thought the fist was a sign of solidarity and encouragement, and didn't stop. The Arabic for "stop" is not stop, it is "kef". Faris was killed.

That freedom to roam informed a report in which I said that the Americans were out of their depth, and rapidly antagonising the Iraqi population. It obviously resonated with a lot of people.

But then, Iraq became too dangerous for unescorted reporting. For two years, my best access to Iraqis was when embedded with US battalions in Baghdad. They hooked me up with Iraqi engineers at some impressive reconstruction projects (new sewers, water treatment plants), and took me to polling stations for the two elections and the referendum in 2005.

But it was while embedded that I witnessed two alarming incidents – the immediate aftermath of a suicide bombing at one of the polling stations (two Iraqi policemen were dismembered), and a roadside bomb exploding as I was being driven in a Humvee (no one was hurt).

I now do regular three-week stints as the BBC's Baghdad correspondent. Our bureau is in the city, not in the Green Zone. It is well guarded. And we get out a lot, with the same discreet protection that I had in Basra. Using lo-profile local vehicles, we visit cafés, markets, shops, offices and do live TV and radio broadcasts from a park. But we try not to stay at any one place too long. Mobile phones are an easy way to summon kidnappers.

It is very different in other places. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, our security policy is being constantly re-calibrated – and it may become like Iraq. But it hasn't yet. In Syria, Egypt, Israel and the West Bank we can still report unescorted, but not in Gaza. And in Lebanon, the main problem is bureaucracy; to visit south Beirut last year, for example, I had to get accreditation from Hizbollah. And a Hizbollah escort walked around with me.

Back in Iraq, in the worst times, a US battalion commander asked, "Hugh, are you scared when you come out with us?" I thought for a moment, and replied, "No. But I am very alert."

Suggested Topics
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Sport
sportVan Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Data Analytics Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading organisation...

Accountant / Assistant Management Accountant

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: We are looking for an Assistant Management Ac...

Data Scientist

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A data analytics are currently looking t...

Insight Analyst Vacancy - Leading Marketing Agency

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading marketing agency have won a fe...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices