The siren for an impending attack went off three times in three hours yesterday, with anti-missile guns roaring in response while soldiers dived for cover. This was no over-reaction – the base at Basra airport had been hit by rockets a day earlier. British troops have withdrawn from their one remaining base in Basra City and are highly unlikely to take part in direct fighting again. Five years after the start of the war, the beginning of the end comes with little fanfare.
The legacy Britain leaves behind however, will long remain a matter of dispute. British officials claim their tenure has seen nothing like the bloodshed seen under US control. But for many Iraqis, Basra is now a dark and forbidding place of militias. More than 100 women have been murdered in a year by religious fundamentalists.
Oil meant to drive the reconstruction is being looted by criminal gangs in barges escorted by gunboats with more firepower than the embryonic Iraqi navy.
Two senior Iraqi officers sent to restore order – Maj-Gen Mohan al-Furayji and Maj-Gen Jalil Khalaf– have pursued negotiations as well as military action against the militias, and say their grip will be loosened in the future.
But some in Basra are too full of grief to have any hope for the future. Hala um Hassan, whose full name is not being published to protect her, went to the police after her 20-year-old daughter Roula failed to return home from university. Her body was found, with gunshot wounds to the head, nine days later. "She had been warned for dressing and behaving in a provocative way by some religious people, said Mrs Hassan. "My daughter always covered her head when she went outside the house. We had heard about other girls going missing. But one morning she went out and did not come back."
Who do the family blame? "The first responsibility lies with the men who did this, they would kill women like they would kill a bird," said Roula's cousin Hania. "But the British have a big army at the airport. What is the point of staying here if they do not deal with these terrible things?"
On the outskirts of Basra, Flt-Lt Jules Weekes was leading a patrol. "When we came we were welcomed with open arms as liberators by the Shia down here," he said. "But there is now a large section of the population who wants us to go."
Additional reporting by Hakim Ali Ibrahim
Voices from the streets of Baghdad
Bashar Salam, 50 Christian, hotel receptionist
Nowadays everything is difficult: Bombs, mortars, kidnapping and you cannot get a job. No one takes care of the people because those in the government are busy making money for themselves and planning their own future, so we expect a dark future for ourselves.
Haitham Sadiq Jaafar, 28 Shia, security guard
Recent years have been bad but they are not as bad as the years of Saddam. We are free now so we can perform our Shia holy ceremonies, while we were slaves under Saddam's regime. The Iraqi people must stand up to terrorism. Then the future will be good.
Hamad al-Jumaili Sunni, lecturer at Baghdad University
The majority of the Iraqi people have found the past five years very hard and this is quite natural because we have been under occupation. It is the occupation that is responsible for everything. The future depends on whether or not the next Iraqi election produces a national government that unites people.
Marcia Hannah Paulus, 35 Christian, office worker
The Christians have become a target for Islamic groups and most of us are forced to leave Iraq. We had peace in Saddam's time and no one attacked us. I believe we are not going to have a good future because the Americans have not been able to solve our problems.
Abu Yusuf, 47 Shia, restaurant owner, educated in Italy
Iraqis are used to being under occupation. It was the British in the 1940s, then we had Abdul Karim Qassem, followed by the Baathist occupation and now the Americans. There is no difference between any of them. The economy is much better compared to before, in spite of bad security.
Kaiser Mehdi Khadim, 26 Shia, worker
Baghdad is destroyed now even more than it was before the war [in 2003]. Sectarianism is everywhere.Reuse content