Where there was one enemy, now there are many

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The Independent Online

Amid the posters of Muqtada al-Sadr and other radical clerics plastered across Basra, the face of a small wide-eyed child stares forth from a far more insignificant circular.

The handwritten inscription below explains his family are desperate for information about the little boy, aged no more than five. But the Baswaris appeared not to notice it on their way to market. "Probably kidnapped," one man said dismissively as if it was too ordinary an occurrence these days to merit further discussion.

Down the street, a large mural in the local police station depicts a map of Iraq. The red paint streaked down it represents the blood of its people, a police officer explained in an equally matter-of-fact manner.

There was a genuine sense of optimism when British tanks rolled into Iraq's second largest city more than three years ago. Some were so overjoyed, they greeted the soldiers with food and flowers. Those who had lost sons, fathers and uncles to Saddam Hussein's regime openly thanked the army.

But slowly that spirit has been crushed. One enemy has been replaced by countless others.

As Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki declared a state of emergency in the British-controlled area yesterday, anyone with any money or hope of escape is trying to emigrate.

Eman Aziz, has lost three of her university classmates since the invasion. All were shot in broad daylight. "It will be difficult for me to leave my country," she said. "But every day my husband goes to work I have to wonder if he will come back."

Murder statistics in the city fluctuate constantly from as many as 20 a day to an official figure of 60 assassinations in February. The people live in fear of the local militia, divided between Sadr's people and the Badr Brigade, as well as the British trained police force. While the British forces now acknowledge that there is a "rotten core" among the police they have trained, locals are far more blunt.

"If you ask anybody in Basra, they would tell you most of the crimes committed, the assassinations, they are carried out by policemen in police cars," said Major General Abdul Latif Thua'Aban, head of Iraqi army's 10 division, recently. He insisted his soldiers, who now command far more respect both locally and among the multi-national forces, are doing their best to stabilise the region.

But every attack aimed against British forces brings another bloody day for the people of Basra. Mortars and rockets which pound the British bases fall short with fatal consequences. A roadside bomb aimed at an armoured Warrior earlier this year tore through a classroom, packed with schoolchildren. Soldiers from the Highlanders battle group rebuilt it, mending the windows and desks - if not the children's peace of mind.

The servicemen and womenhave become used to the violence which appears to come in often inexplicable waves. Each death chips away at morale, and for some it brings searing grief. "Everyone was so keen to come out here. They are not so keen now," said one Royal Anglian soldier, who lost a friend 18 days ago.

There are also signs of optimism, economically at least. A fleet of new buses now waits outside the station. Amid the sewage and filth which still fill the streets, ambitious building projects abound. But ask the Baswaris who can possibly afford to build an ostentatious mansion beside the river and they simply shrug.

It is a common expression in a city where a largely moderate population is now afraid to speak out. Women in particular have seen their rights disappear since the invasion.To go out without a scarf, a regular sight three years ago, is tantamount to suicide. "Before the invasion you didn't talk about the Ba'ath party. Now you are afraid to talk about ten or 12 parties," said Eman Aziz.