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
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Professional Sales Trainee - B2B

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: First things first - for the av...

Recruitment Genius: Account Executive - Graduate / Entry Level

£22000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital advertising infras...

Guru Careers: PR Account Director / SAM

£50 - 60k (DOE) + Benefits & Bonus: Guru Careers: A PR Account Director / SAM ...

Guru Careers: Research Analyst / Business Insight Analyst

£32 - £37K + extensive benefits: Guru Careers: Research Analyst / Business Ins...

Day In a Page

Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

But if a real smoking gun is found, that might change things, says Tom Peck
Twenty two years later Jurassic Park series faces questions over accuracy of the fictional dinosaurs in it

Tyrannosaurus wrecked?

Twenty two years on, Jurassic Park faces questions over accuracy
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
Genes greatly influence when and how many babies a woman will have, study finds

Mother’s genes play key role in decision to start a family

Study's findings suggest that human fertility is still evolving
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
England can win the Ashes – and Elvis Presley will present the urn

England can win the Ashes – and Elvis will present the urn

In their last five Test, they have lost two and drawn two and defeated an India side last summer who thought that turning up was competing, says Stephen Brenkley
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)