Iraq: 'Basra is now worse than when the British troops arrived'

Six years after the invasion, the BBC's Hugh Sykes reflects on the changing security picture

Friday 20 December 2013 04:13

I've just spent a rewarding and enriching week in Basra – eating in restaurants, visiting shops, interviewing people in markets, driving around. I saw that Basra was mostly worse than it was when I first visited the city after British forces arrived there six years ago.

Basra was once known as the Venice of the East as it has dozens of canals. But there is no romance in them now. They are clogged with sewage and rubbish – household waste, abandoned cars, broken bikes and plastic bottles and bags.

I was able to report objectively from Basra entirely because of the careful planning and immense care of two BBC security advisers who watched my back. They are former soldiers, but are now BBC staff. I mustn't be too precise – but I can say that they are well-equipped to respond to danger. And – more importantly – they carry what they call a "keep you alive" medical kit.

Some of my newspaper colleagues think that even these measures are over the top, but the BBC has had to deal with dreadful incidents in recent years. The Gaza correspondent, Alan Johnston, was kidnapped. In Somalia, a producer, Kate Peyton, was shot dead. A reporter wearing headphones and holding a large microphone is an easy target.

And I do television reports as well. One day I had to walk through a Basra market, talking straight to the camera for two minutes. There is no way I would have done that without someone watching out for me and the cameraman, Nick Woolley.

It's a difficult balancing act – between caution and fear. I think we've got the balance right. It hasn't always been so challenging. The first time I went to Basra, in July 2003 – before the militias and the insurgency had evolved – I went from Baghdad by taxi. But even then I went with a driver trusted by the BBC's Iraqi office manager.

I stayed in a rundown hotel. I might have stayed there again this week, but our security advisers preferred a temporary "hotel" near the British base in the desert – if I'd stayed in that Basra hotel again, one of them would have had to stay up all night on guard. A reasonable compromise, I think.

The "free range" reporting of the early days is the best way, of course – if it's safe.

In the Sheraton Hotel in Baghdad, in 2003, I met a man with a lapel badge: "Iraqi Mothers Relief Organisation". Haithem took me down to Hillah, two hours drive south, to meet people bereaved during the invasion.

I met Riath Hussein, who had been blinded in both eyes by US troops after a misunderstanding at a checkpoint. One American soldier had raised a fist, and shouted "stop". Riath and his brother Faris thought the fist was a sign of solidarity and encouragement, and didn't stop. The Arabic for "stop" is not stop, it is "kef". Faris was killed.

That freedom to roam informed a report in which I said that the Americans were out of their depth, and rapidly antagonising the Iraqi population. It obviously resonated with a lot of people.

But then, Iraq became too dangerous for unescorted reporting. For two years, my best access to Iraqis was when embedded with US battalions in Baghdad. They hooked me up with Iraqi engineers at some impressive reconstruction projects (new sewers, water treatment plants), and took me to polling stations for the two elections and the referendum in 2005.

But it was while embedded that I witnessed two alarming incidents – the immediate aftermath of a suicide bombing at one of the polling stations (two Iraqi policemen were dismembered), and a roadside bomb exploding as I was being driven in a Humvee (no one was hurt).

I now do regular three-week stints as the BBC's Baghdad correspondent. Our bureau is in the city, not in the Green Zone. It is well guarded. And we get out a lot, with the same discreet protection that I had in Basra. Using lo-profile local vehicles, we visit cafés, markets, shops, offices and do live TV and radio broadcasts from a park. But we try not to stay at any one place too long. Mobile phones are an easy way to summon kidnappers.

It is very different in other places. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, our security policy is being constantly re-calibrated – and it may become like Iraq. But it hasn't yet. In Syria, Egypt, Israel and the West Bank we can still report unescorted, but not in Gaza. And in Lebanon, the main problem is bureaucracy; to visit south Beirut last year, for example, I had to get accreditation from Hizbollah. And a Hizbollah escort walked around with me.

Back in Iraq, in the worst times, a US battalion commander asked, "Hugh, are you scared when you come out with us?" I thought for a moment, and replied, "No. But I am very alert."

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