'Whether we like them or not, the British can't leave us in a vacuum'

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The Independent Online

The main mural inside one Basra city centre police station is of a map of Iraq. Streaks of red paint have been dripped down from the north, symbolising the blood of Iraq's people.

Last week there was no pause in the blood-letting. A roadside bomb aimed at British troops tore through a busy road, killing several local people. In February alone, 60 people were assassinated by death squads in Basra. Ask one of the policeman whether Iraqis will ever stop bleeding, and he simply shrugs his shoulders and grimaces. Three years after the invasion of Iraq, it is a common expression in the country's second largest city.

As in Baghdad, the fall of Saddam has brought greater prosperity to some. Basra's "thieves' market" does a booming trade in everything, including British military equipment. An entire street is dedicated to small shops jammed with new mobile phones, while billboards advertising white goods hang beside posters of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Amid the foot-deep rubbish which blankets the city, ornate, ostentatious homes have sprung up.

Asked whether life is better or worse since the invasion three years ago, however, the verdict is mixed for most people. "We have seen progress, but it is at a snail's pace and it is frustrating," said 26-year-old Abu Mohammed. But in an area where most can name countless members of their family killed by Saddam Hussein's regime - Mr Mohammed lost 22 uncles, grandparents and cousins - the right to speak freely, to voice discontent, is certainly treasured. "I personally believe demonstrations are very cathartic, you can see everyone can express their opinion," he said. "I can now criticise the government - but it doesn't mean I want the British to leave."

Others' rights, however, are under threat. Many women are incarcerated at home. Zealots crash into the cars of those who drive, while women in remoter tribal areas are forbidden from reading anything but the Koran. Even the city's Christians now wear scarves for fear of retribution, and a poster in town promoting democracy has the women's faces scrubbed out.

Overshadowing everything else is a security situation which is far worse than three years ago. While there is now some respect for the new and increasingly professional-looking Iraqi army, the locals have little faith in the police. People are arrested on hearsay and can spend months in barren concrete cells. It is commonly believed that the police are responsible for as much, if not more, crime than they prevent.

Suspected terrorists and serious criminals are transferred to the infamous al-Jamiat police station where the British had to rescue two special forces soldiers six months ago. If, as has long been suspected, the station remains a militia stronghold, it lends credence to Iraqi army claims that the insurgents they arrest are simply being freed.

"Whether we like them or dislike them, the majority want to keep a British presence - not because they are kind or because they are friends, but because with the collapse of our former regime we witnessed a political vacuum and our security forces are still fledgling. The MNF [multi-national force] is vital for security," said Mr Mohammed.

Some in the city openly resent the British presence, either because they feel they have not done enough to improve the situation or because they believe security will improve if they move from the area.

But street patrols still get a friendly reception for the most part from locals who fear that if the British leave, they will be replaced by "outsiders" from neighbouring countries, or the much more feared American force, bringing the far worse bloodshed further north to their area.

Commenting on the recent falling-out between the local authorities and occupying troops, Abu Ja'afar, 31, pointed out: "The Governor may be boycotting the British, but he is not asking them to leave."

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