Basra voters say it is time for soldiers to go

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Her colleague Fatima added: "I do not like seeing foreign soldiers on our streets, they should go."

What is surprising about these views in Basra is that they came from two educated, middle class women speaking fluent English who have frequent contact with the British and have little sympathy for the Shia militia who have infiltrated the Iraqi police.

In fact, the women admit they are very wary of the same police who had arrested two British special forces soldiers, triggering a rescue mission in which British forces smashed their way into a police station.

Their sentiments, echoed by others, do reflect, however, the new, public mood of defiance and nationalism among the Shia of Iraq as they prepare for power for the first time in 100 years.

The generally accepted forecast now is that the impending referendum will vote in favour of the new constitution and, with it, put in motion the Shia gameplan for a future Iraq.

Under the federal structure of the document Shia leaders will, at last, gain control of thelucrative oil fields of the south while the Kurds keep hold of those in the north. The Sunni bitterly bemoan that they will be left with "the sands of Anbar" - the barren, Sunni majority province.

Like the Kurds, the Shia south suffered from periodic bouts of brutal repression under Saddam. Now, they say, they are free of fear to decide their own destiny.

But the freedom from fear stretches only up to a point. The vast majority of those who spoke wanted only their first names mentioned because of fear of retribution from the militias who are fighting each other, and British forces, for the control of Basra and the riches it will bring when political and economic power shifts from Baghdad to Basra.

Mohammed works for Basra's provincial council, which has demanded the British authorities hand over the two soldiers for trial, apologise publicly and pay compensation. He said: "If we have jurisdiction, then our laws must be obeyed. The freeing of the soldiers could have been negotiated but the British used excessive force. We should vote for the referendum because it will set up a democratic government for Iraq which can rule itself without foreign military." But even with those sentiments he does not want his full name revealed.

There are, however, significant doubts about the religious nature of the new constitution, and even those who want the British to leave Iraq for nationalistic reasons are deeply concerned at the prospect of being left in the hands of the Islamist militias.

"It is written by Islamists for Islamists", declared Adil, an academic. "I have looked through this and there is nothing there for a secular person like me.

"But I shall be voting 'yes' because if it is rejected I know there are groups who are ready to use that as an excuse to break away the south from the rest of Iraq as a separate state where the Iranians will have huge influence. I don't like the constitution but it is the only option left now.

"The militias are a great danger. The British allowed them too much time to take over. Now the British are, at last, doing something and carrying out arrests. But this should have been done sooner."

Zainab and her friend Zahra, 37, are both deeply apprehensive about the effect the constitution will have on women's rights. Since "liberation" by US-led forces they have seen the growth in the power of Muslim clerics and the diminishing power of choice.

Both come from mixed Sunni and Shia families and they say both sides of their families are liberal and tolerant about religion.

"But now I have to wear this", said Zainab, tugging her headscarf. "I started wearing it five months ago. If you don't, there is trouble. It is not just insults in the street, we know of at least two girls who have been shot for refusing to cover their heads.

"Iraqi women used to be the most well educated, holding the best jobs, in the Arab world. All that is being threatened and I am afraid it is going to get worse. I am not going to vote. I don't want to risk my life for 5,000 dinars, which is what this [headscarf] costs. What I find annoying is that I am being forced to wear it, I am left with no say."