Crime-racked Basra calls on British troops to get tougher

By the still waters of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, a few dozen university lecturers and professors gather with black banners to protest at the armed British troops manning the ornate gate of Basra's presidential palace. Their colleague, the head of the engineering department, has just been murdered. They know who the killers are, they say, and accuse the British of doing nothing about it.

"If you can't keep the peace," Dr Aziz al-Hilfi shouts at the soldiers, "we shall turn against you!" Like many of his colleagues, he went to university in Britain and has never demonstrated before. "You can hire a killer here for 100,000 dinars [about £40]," he says. "The Iraqi police are useless; they do nothing. The British drive around, but they aren't protecting us. Do they want the 1920s again?"

The reference is lost on no one here. The British invented modern Iraq, but in the late 1920s they were driven out by a wave of violent frustration at their rule.

Frustration at the lack of security in Basra is reaching boiling point. Just up the road from the protest, doctors at Basra's main teaching hospital are treating Abbas Khudayir, who has been shot nine times for the £200 he was carrying to buy a motorbike. He will survive, but the doctors aren't so sure about Britain's chances of keeping the lid on the growing discontent. "They need to be tougher", says Dr Nezar Al-Mafooz, himself educated in Britain. "They need to shoot more."

At this hospital there has been a 10-fold increase in the victims of violence since the end of the war, most of them gunshot victims, and the death toll is rising. Some are the victims of score-settling, like the Baath party member dragged out of his car and shot twice in the head a few hundred yards from the palace, now home to the British top brass in Basra. But most are the targets of industrial-scale criminal gangs, terrorising what is left of the middle class here through housebreaking, car-jacking and kidnapping.

Margaret Hitchcock, originally from Plymouth, has lived in Basra for 35 years. She has survived the shelling of the Iran-Iraq war and both Gulf Wars, but she has never been so scared. Earlier this week a group of men came to her house, declared that her property was now theirs and returned the following night to fire dozens of shots over the back of the house. "I am frightened," she says. "I fear for my life. The British try to protect me but they cannot. They are too soft."

There is no doubt that the troops are doing their best - patrolling, confiscating weapons, training more Iraqi police officers. But it is equally obvious that they are severely stretched.

As an occupier, Major Gary Deakin of the First Battalion, King's Regiment, is responsible under the Geneva Convention for the safety and security of 150,000 people in dozens of competing, often feuding tribes, spread over 70 square miles. He has 137 men. His trick, in his words, is to go tribal. "We are the biggest, best-armed and richest tribe on the patch," he explains.

When the tribes feud with heavy weapons, he negotiates ceasefires. He seizes weapons when they are displayed provocatively. He visits mosques to try to influence the imams on Thursdays, before they speak at prayers the following day. His men have renovated classrooms, so the schools could open on time this month. They work hard on hearts and minds, but they know they're struggling in the front line of a fight that should have been wrapped up long ago.

Sir Hilary Synott, Britain's senior administrator in Basra and head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in southern Iraq, acknowledges the problem.

"I can't be satisfied with the speed of change here," he says. "The security situation is tense. We're all targeted. We're not complacent."

He has no cause to be: in the back streets of Basra lurk men who dream of driving the British out. Some once ruled these streets with terror, and now rove them inciting revolt. But when the threats they issue are repeated by the doctors and the professors outside the palace in Basra, it is time to listen.

Bill Neely is a reporter for ITN