Brutal reminders that peace in Iraq is far from assured

As British troops pull out of Basra, a stabbing and car bombing show that stability is still a long way away

The stabbing was sudden and fierce, a man in the crowd lunging forward with a knife, thrust into the neck of a member of the Iraqi military.

After a stunned moment the soldier's comrades opened fire, cutting down the attacker. Round after round echoed through the streets scattering the crowd, parents snatching screaming toddlers into their arms, troops crouching around Humvees in full throttle.

The violent scene which played out in Basra on Tuesday night was for some of us who witnessed it a brutal reminder of the vicious conflict which has cost so many lives since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the launch of one of the most emotive and controversial wars in recent British history.

The attack in Hayaniyah district was not, however, a sign that Basra had slid back into its darkest, bloodiest days. What it did show, however, (just as yesterday's bombings in Baghdad did, which killed 41) was that on the eve of Britain's final withdrawal from Iraq, very real problems remain in this fractured and traumatised society.

The Hayaniyah "incident" took place during one of the last patrols carried out by UK forces in Basra City. The troops were on the ground alongside their Iraqi counterparts who will now formally take over security for the region. Also there were a few Americans, about 5,000 of whom will be replacing the last 3,800 British soldiers whose long convoys have begun to disappear into the desert.

The man who carried out the stabbing had, according to Iraqis present, been shouting that he would kill an American. Hayaniyah was a stronghold of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army, the scene of frequent ambushes of British patrols and the launching pad for mortar and rocket attacks on the British headquarters at the airport.

It was hard to gauge, in the confusion and panic, the immediate significance of the attack. Yesterday I went back to the area to be told that the 36-year-old assailant had not had a job for 12 years and most of his family were unemployed, like 60 per cent of the male population of the area, and had loose connections in the past with the Shia militias. At the Services' Hospital, where he was treated for bullet wounds, medical staff said they did not know whether he was "crazy" as the soldiers had claimed.

There is little doubt that a lot has changed for the better in Basra since the time when militias imposed their harsh Islamist rule in the city.

A year ago I could only travel around the city with extreme caution and then it was to hear people tell me how the unforgiving regime of the Mehdi Army had added to the other hardships they faced. A hundred women a year were murdered in so-called honour killings while random Sunnis and Christians were executed by Shia paramilitary death squads, often working with corrupt policemen.

Reporting was dangerous. Nour al-Khal, a journalist with whom I worked, and Stephen Vincent, an American reporter, were taken away at gunpoint by men in police uniforms and shot. Vincent died, al-Khal, who was dumped on a roadside, survived and has since fled the country.

The militias were eventually driven out in Operation Charge of the Knights, an offensive begun by the Iraqi army on the orders of the Prime Minister, Nour al-Maliki, and finished with American and British help after the government troops found themselves outgunned by the Mehdi Army.

The British have faced criticism from many quarters, including some American officials, for not being tough enough with the militias, allowing them to take over in Basra, freeing prisoners in the hope of establishing truces. British officials and military commanders robustly deny this.

The departure of the militias has led to a degree of vibrancy in Basra. The floating restaurants moored off the Corniche do a brisk trade late into the evening, gleaming new shopping malls are springing up and the airport has re-opened to international flights.

Having given up its military role in Iraq, the British government is now the leading proponent of promoting Iraq's commerce and industry. As the British officially withdraw from Basra, almost the entire Iraqi cabinet will arrive in London for a trade conference.

At Al-Khaima shopping centre, Um Hussain 27, and Um Ali, 30, described how they had stayed indoors for months during the period when the militias were carrying out their murderous campaign against women.

Their friends Lekah and Shaima both just 20, were killed. "They said they were immodest, they had been influenced by the West. A man in a mask shot them" recalled Um Ali.

"We knew that was not the case. They were young, they wanted to get married, but they did not get the chance. Things are much better now, I only wish they had lived to see this."

The fear of violence returning haunts many in this new Basra. Salam Ghaza Haroun, who runs a clothes store, acknowledged: "Business has been good and at the moment I am getting lots of customers. We thank the British for helping to get rid of Saddam and they did try to understand our way of life. But they should have confronted the militias more. Most of us believe there will be big trouble in the future. There are still men with guns around and this is a big problem."

Basra by numbers

£744m UK spend on reconstruction in Iraq

11 Murders in Basra in January this year. In all of 2007 there were 848

17% Unemployment rate in the city

Suggested Topics
News
In 2006, Pluto was reclassified as a 'dwarf planet'
scienceBut will it be reinstated?
News
Jennifer Lawrence at the Vanity Fair Academy Awards party in February 2014
people12 undisclosed female victims are seeking $100m in damages
Arts and Entertainment
Adam Levine plays a butcher who obsessively stalks a woman in Maroon 5's 'Animals' music video
music'Animals' video 'promotes sexual violence against women'
News
people Biographer says cinema’s enduring sex symbol led a secret troubled life
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Voices
voicesI like surprises - that's why I'm bringing them back to politics, writes Nigel Farage
News
Bear and hare woodland scene from John Lewis Christmas advert
newsRetailer breaks with tradition, selling real festive fir trees online for the first time
Arts and Entertainment
Anthony Horowitz will write the next 007 novel
booksAnthony Horowitz to write new instalment in spy series for 2015
News
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
people
News
people

Kirstie Allsopp has waded into the female fertility debate again

Sport
Kicking on: Nathaniel Clyne is relishing the challenge of the Premier League after moving from Crystal Palace
footballSurprises include a first ever call-up for one Southampton star
Voices
4 May 2013: The sun rises over Tower Bridge in London. Temperatures across the UK could be higher than several European holiday destinations by Monday, including parts of Italy and France (Andy Hepburn/PA)
voices
News
The moon observed in visible light, topography and the GRAIL gravity gradients
science

...and it wasn't caused by an asteroid crash, as first thought

News
Researchers say a diet of fatty foods could impede smell abilities
scienceMeasuring the sense may predict a person's lifespan
News
newsGlobal index has ranked the quality of life for OAPs - but the UK didn't even make it into the top 10
Extras
indybest
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 General

Digital Fundraising Analyst/Web Analyst - West Sussex - Permanent - £30k DOE

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Application Support Engineer – 6 month FTC – West Sussex - £26k-£28k pro rata

£26000 - £28000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

English Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: English Teacher required for ...

Head of IT Change – West Sussex – Up to £60k DOE – Permanent

£55000 - £60000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?