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Kim Sengupta: Dark days when military and militias were at war

Iraq in 2004 was a dark and forbidding place. A year after "liberation" by American and British forces the rules of civic society had all but disappeared. We were living on the jagged edge of anarchy.

Baghdad echoed with suicide bombings and firefights, low-flying helicopters and sirens. The talk was of the abuse at Abu Ghraib, the coming of al-Qa'ida and Shia death squads. Dead bodies were piling up, and those who could flee the country did so.

In the British-run south, we used to think, things were a lot calmer. Journalists sitting at the Hamra Hotel, well outside the heavily fortified Green Zone, would joke about going down to Basra for a bit of peace, a spot of R&R.

It proved to be a false impression. The scale of violence in the south may have been much less than in the Iraqi capital, but the security situation was unravelling fast. Shia militias of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army and the Badr Brigade had taken over neighbourhoods and infiltrated the police force, Sunnis and Christians were being killed and driven out. The Iranians were busy smuggling in explosives and equipment for "shaped charge" bombs which would take a devastating toll. The British complacency that they were managing Iraq far better than the Americans would soon shatter.

For the UK forces it was a shock to the system. The Shia population of the south had, on the whole, welcomed deliverance from Saddam, but there was a growing and aggressive mood against occupation with attacks becoming increasingly common.

The Battle of Danny Boy took place against this background of growing confrontation between the militias and the UK military who had found itself pitched from supposed peacekeeping to warfighting. The encounter was fierce and included everything from bayonet charges to tank rounds. It also took place near Majr al-Kabir, where six months previously six British soldiers had been murdered by a mob as they attempted to surrender having run out of ammunition.

None of this excuses the abuse – if indeed there was any abuse – following Danny Boy. Questions were raised, around that time, about the effectiveness of a number of official inquiries at the time. I recall one in particular – into the abuse of detainees at a supply depot on the Basra outskirts, Camp Breadbasket. The soldiers carrying out the mistreatment had taken "trophy" photographs of their victims. The Royal Military Police, however, failed to find any of these victims despite a year-long inquiry. An Iraqi colleague, Nour al-Khal, and I found them within half a day, living in the nearest urban settlement to the camp.