From flowers to armoured vehicles: British forces in Basra

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A thousand days ago, British forces were greeted in Basra with the proverbial flowers. Now the only time most inhabitants of Iraq's second largest-city see any sign of British troops on the streets is when they pass through every three days or so in a heavy armoured column.

Foot patrols by soldiers wearing berets are largely a thing of the past, except in a few safe areas on the fringes of the city. Routine movements between the four main bases around Basra are now entirely by helicopter, even between two sites only five miles apart. On the brief flight between the air base and Basra Palace, the headquarters for British civilian staff, a crew member swivelled a machine gun about as the city slipped past the half-open loading ramp, and flares were fired to decoy heat-seeking missiles.

For most squaddies, this is the only time they get to see anything of Iraq but dust and concrete. The majority of Britain's 8,500 forces spend their time at bases in the desert, where a Spartan lifestyle of camp beds and barn-sized plastic tents is relieved by a daily allowance of no more than two beers (no spirits allowed).

On Thursday Iraqis will vote in greater numbers than ever before for a full-scale government in Baghdad. Short of major trouble, however - which is not expected - the soldiers manning checkpoints on the outskirts of Basra will be the only Britons in uniform to witness anything of this potentially historic event. Polling stations and election centres in the heart of the city will be controlled by the local police, with a ring of Iraqi troops between them and the British.

The irony, as a senior British military source pointed out two months ago, is that security for British forces in Iraq has deteriorated as it has improved for local people. British spokesmen point out that the four provinces they control in south-east Iraq suffer only two per cent of the attacks carried out in the country as a whole. But a tenth of British deaths from the start of the war more than 30 months ago have been suffered since May, with 10 soldiers killed - one in a suicide bombing and nine in a deadly spate of roadside bombings, using shaped charges of a sophistication not seen before.

In October Tony Blair and Jack Straw launched a war of words with Tehran by claiming that the know-how and materials for the bombs came across the border from Iran. The strong implication was that the bombings had the support of the Iranian government, though that suggestion has no support from British sources on the ground in southern Iraq.

The same month, British forces had to use armoured vehicles to smash their way into the city's Jamiat police station, where two members of the special forces who had been keeping a watch on the station had been seized. The rescue operation caused a rupture of relations between British representatives and the local authorities, although these have since been restored, and a section of the police notoriously out of the control of the city's police commander has been disbanded.

The outcome, however, is that British forces have largely withdrawn into their four main bases around Basra. This has brought a halt for the moment to the series of deaths from roadside bombings; the worst soldiers can expect is the odd burst of small-arms fire or attempt to lob a mortar into their positions.

The main mission now, says Major-General Jim Dutton, commander of British forces in south-east Iraq, is security sector reform: cleaning up the police and training the army to the point where Britain can withdraw. The less they see of British troops, the more confidently some local election candidates pronounce that this point should arrive in 2006, or 2007 at the latest. But many are less sure, and no military spokesman on the British or Iraqi side is willing to mention any date.

Britain is also spending heavily on economic aid, "buying soldiers' lives, in effect", as Lieutenant Colonel James Hopkinson, British military commander in Basra, bluntly put it to BBC TV news. "For us to operate in Basra, we need the consent of the people," he went on.

"The longer we stay here, the more difficult it'll become, particularly as we move through national elections ... We are guests, and we need to be very careful not to outstay our welcome." It is a long way from the flowers of spring 2003.