The Dawn of a new Basra

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With the date set for British troops to leave, Kim Sengupta ventures on to the streets to find a city at peace with itself – for now

Dining late in the evening on the restaurant boat Tistaahel on the Shatt Al Arab, as the manager discusses plans for an open-air casino in the summer, is an unusual experience for Basra. This was, not so long ago, a lawless place where militias terrorised the population through murder and intimidation.

The gunmen have disappeared, the shops are busy and the roads crowded. Evidence, one could argue, to back Gordon Brown's assertion, as he announced the withdrawal of British forces during a flying visit to Basra, that Iraq is being left a bright future of stability and prosperity .

But tensions are simmering not far beneath the surface. The restaurants in the Corniche can be reached only after negotiating a series of heavily armed checkpoints. The unemployed Shia youths who used to provide the recruiting pool for paramilitaries remain angry and disaffected and there is deep unhappiness at the prospect of American forces taking over from the departing British. There is also the fear that the violence may return in preparations for the forthcoming provincial elections, with Shia paramilitaries seeking to infiltrate back into the city. And, although much effort has been made to reform the police, suspicion remains that many of them are secretly in league with the insurgents.

There certainly has been significant improvement in the past few months since an offensive by Iraqi, American and British forces called Operation Charge of the Knights, cleared the gunmen from Iraq's second city. Even a year ago, I could travel in the city only under extreme caution, to hear local people whisper, behind closed doors, of the appalling treatment they faced at the hands of the private armies. A hundred women a year were victims of honour killings, Sunnis and Christians were targets of sectarian murders by Shia paramilitaries running death squads alongside corrupt policemen.

Reporting the abuse could be a highly dangerous matter. Nour al-Khal, a very brave Iraqi journalist I worked with, along with an American reporter, Stephen Vincent, was taken away at gunpoint by men in police uniforms and shot. Stephen died, Nour, dumped on the roadside, survived and later fled the country.

The abduction of Nour and Stephen was in Hayaniyah, the most deprived area of the city and a stronghold of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army. It was also the scene of frequent ambushes of British patrols and it was the launching pad for mortar and rocket attacks on the UK headquarters at the airport. The evening after Mr Brown's brief visit to Iraq this week, and the widespread airing in the local media of the timetable for UK withdrawal, Hayaniyah seemed a relaxed place. A passing Iraqi army patrol accompanied by British soldiers drew a crowd and an impassioned debate, but no overt hostility.

Hussein Abdel Ali, who runs a fruit stall said: "Yes, business is better since the militias were beaten. I don't know where they went to but we don't want them back. But I would like to point out that since the fall of Saddam the militias were allowed to take over this city. We did not get any help from the Iraqi or British authorities. They did well in the offensive this year and we are grateful for that, we are also grateful to the foreign forces for getting rid of Saddam, but it is time for the British and all foreigners to go."

Mr Ali, who has eight children, said he would certainly vote in the coming elections. "They have thousands of candidates, and it is very confusing. But we need to take part in the elections because otherwise we cannot complain about the future." The news that the Americans will be replacing the British at Basra drew unanimous objections from the small crowd gathered outside Mr Ali's stall.

"At least the British have shown some respect for our history and culture," said 27-year-old Narwhan Mukhtar. "That is not what the Americans have shown in Baghdad; they have given us Abu Ghraib. If we had to have any foreign forces to stay we would rather have the British. The Americans will be aggressive and there will be violence and that will let the militias to come back. It is not good." His friend Amir Ali shook his head. "The British say friendly things, but their foreign policy always follows the Americans."

For 28-yea-old Haidar Mohammed, the talk of Iraq's bright economic future remains an empty promise. "Our country should be the wealthiest in the world. But we have young men, university graduates, sweeping the streets. I am educated, but all I can do is get odd jobs. Sixty per cent of the young people here are unemployed. I blame our politicians who are corrupt and I blame the foreigners who put them there." Three miles away at her home, Hala um Ibrahim, whose full name is not being published to protect her, alternates between anger and grief over the murder of her daughter. "She was killed, not by the foreigners, not by some politician in Baghdad but by men, here in Basra. They have killed others; they would kill women like they would kill a bird."

Hania, a 21-year-old student, disappeared last year on her way home from college. Her body was found a few days later with gunshot wounds to the face and head. "There were these men who were threatening girls in our neighbourhood, they were accusing them of behaving in a provocative way, they said the same to my daughter, they said bad, false things about her. But my daughter was a good girl, she was always modest, she always covered her head, when she went to work." Her voice faded away.

Samira Ahmed, also a student, says she hopes that the days she and her friends lived in fear of the Islamists are over. "I can go out now with my friends and we can dress more freely" she said. "It was getting so bad we were thinking of leaving as a family, but now we can stay and carry on with our lives. Things have definitely changed and we are very glad."

Dr Juliana Dawood Yusef, a professor of linguistics at Basra university, a Christian married to a Sunni, believes the gains are fragile. " People are getting more confident again and there is a lot of relief about security. Some of my students who fled have now come back. A lot of progress has been made, but people are nervous that there will again be trouble, and the militias will return."

Some in the Iraqi security forces are also convinced that another confrontation is looming. At 39, Warrant Officer Hatem Juma is a 22-year veteran of the Iraqi army who has fought in the war against Iran and the West in the first and second Gulf Wars. Now he is training alongside British forces to fight the next war against the militias.

"They will try to take advantage of the British leaving and the elections. We are certain of that," he said as the men around him nodded. "When we fought in the Charge of the Knights it was very difficult at first. The militias had weapons as good as ours and sometimes better, and they were well-trained. We needed the help of the Americans and the British to beat them at the end. But we, the Iraqi army, are much better now and we have better arms. We want the militias to try to come back. This thing needs to be settled; we need to shut the door of hope on their face."

But WO Juma and his comrades will not be depending too much on their colleagues on the Iraqi police force. " Information goes back to the militias. We have had experience of that." Iraqi and British officials say that drastic reform had been instituted in the police force with more than 4,000 personnel sacked and others arrested and charged. A joint headquarters have been set up to co-ordinate security and relations between senior and army officers are said to be good. But it will take time to eradicate deeply held suspicion.

On the Basra corniche, at the Tistaahel Hotel, general manager Salman Abu Mustapha was also considering what the future held. "We are employing 50 people here. There are 15 good restaurants opening here now. Families can come and get away from their troubles after a long time when they could not come to such places. Everything depends on what happens in the next few months. But maybe we will have tourists back one day. Basra was once known as the Venice of the East you know? Inshallah, maybe those days will return."

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