Basra: a deadly zone where the threat is on all sides

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One of the few pleasures of being stationed in the Shatt al-Arab hotel British army base in Basra is the sight of the river at sunrise.

Basra's waterway is a geographical reminder of when the now dilapidated building packed with containers was an elegant hotel for 1930s travellers on their way east and the locals would gather by the river to gossip. But yesterday the river became the site of one of the most lethal attacks to strike British forces in the southern Iraqi city. Troops stationed in the camps in or around Basra have long grown used to the fact that the roads provide a potentially lethal route. They know that if the local crowds disappear that they may be facing another roadside bomb, or improvised explosive device (IED) as the military calls them. Some streets have become notorious enough to earn the nickname IED alley.

For a long time the helicopters which fly between the camps appeared a safer alternative. Then a Lynx was shot down, killing five service personnel. It was one of a serious of lethal firsts which troops have had to contend with in 2006. The year has also seen the first soldiers to be killed by the mortars that are regularly fired at the bases. And just the other day Kingsman Jamie Hancock, 19, became the first soldier to be killed by small arms fire aimed at a camp sentry.

Now the river has claimed its first British lives. Yesterday's deaths will undoubtedly hit morale among troops who already say that they often feel that they are taking one step forward only to make two steps back. But perhaps more strikingly, it is yet another sign of the threat closing in from all sides.