More good news from South Iraq

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British peacekeepers are befriending local leaders, unlike US soldiers in the north

THE three British soldiers nudged their way through the heavy crowd of shoppers in Basra’s notorious “Thieves Market”, acknowledging the cheers of street urchins and the odd polite wave from a merchant.

Sunburnt, sweaty and newly arrived in the country, the men of The Royal Regiment of Wales could not have stood out more starkly amid the throng of Iraqis.

“Tell them it is not safe to go to the market — there are thieves there,” said a kindly officer in the newly formed Iraqi police force, as though advising tourists about the dangers of pickpockets on Oxford Street.

Underlying his warning was an extraordinary admission. A British soldier might lose his wallet in central Basra, but, for the moment at least, not his life. As the lightly armed, lightly protected foot patrol finished its first sweep of the day, the soldiers’ experience in Iraq’s second city was in vivid contrast to that of the American forces in and around the capital, only a few hours’ drive to the north.

This week alone, America suffered its single deadliest attack as 15 soldiers were killed west of Baghdad when their helicopter was shot down by Iraqi fighters. In the past few weeks, the city has been shaken by a series of suicide car-bombings and a rocket attack on a hotel where Paul Wolfowitz, the US Deputy Defence Secretary, was staying. On two successive nights this week, mortar rounds exploded inside the coalition headquarters compound, injuring three people. US troops and civilian staff now live behind heavily fortified positions and when they travel they do so in well-armed and heavily protected convoys. Personal contact between ordinary Iraqis and the US-led coalition in the capital is virtually non-existent.

Meanwhile, in the south, the British are preoccupied with anti-smuggling operations, ranging from oil to copper — and even livestock — preventing crime and working diligently to make sure that their presence here is still welcome. Thanks to the local politics, Basra’s geography and Britain’s long experience in peacekeeping missions, the tactic seems to be working.

The lengths that the British go to micro-manage this ancient port city of 1.3 million people is breathtaking. For instance, after a shortage of plastic sheeting threatened to raise prices out of the reach of poor farmers, who use it to grow tomatoes and other produce, the British-led authority intervened. It is now spending £300,000 on flooding the local market with plastic sheeting and controlling the price so that both farmers and merchants can make a profit.

“Any economic problem can quickly turn into a security problem unless you deal with it quickly,” said one British official.

Senior British army officers, whose American counterparts in the north are primarily concerned with protecting the lives of their soldiers, spend most of their time here befriending local tribal and religious leaders, who, in the absence of any strong political parties, have once again become the main force in the land.

Lieutenant-Colonel Ciaran Griffin, the commanding officer of The King’s Regiment, has become something of a latter-day Lawrence of Arabia during his tour. On first-name terms with tribal sheikhs, Marsh Arab chieftains and Shia Muslim clerics, he has found that the best way to keep the peace is to stay on good terms with the local people.

This week, for instance, he travelled to the Iranian border to discuss security with his Iranian counterpart, visited all the heads of local clans, attended a traditional Ramadan dinner and fasted for one day to get a feel for the experience. He boasts that all his soldiers speak enough Arabic to operate a checkpoint and as his tour comes to an end he looks back fondly on his time here.

“I have loved it. The Iraqis are really wonderful people,” he said yesterday at his headquarters in the Shatt al-Arab hotel, a neo-colonial building with ceiling fans and palm trees, which appears to have been designed to house British troops a century ago.

British officers insist that interacting with the locals does not mean being soft. Two tribal chiefs engaged in a bloody feud were thrown into jail when they refused to stop fighting. Organised crime, such as hostage-taking, has been largely eradicated, and by popular local request British forces still man checkpoints and carry out patrols largely to demonstrate their presence. Tanks and armoured vehicles are kept at the ready for use if the situation deteriorates.

For now, that does not seem likely, judging by a dozen interviews with Iraqis in Basra. Muayed Abdel Bari, who lives in the poor Shia Flats suburb of the city, said the British Forces in Basra had a good reputation for respecting local customs and keeping law and order.

But he suggested strongly that economics rather than military tactics would influence his opinion. Before the war, he received $1.50 (90p) a month for his job in the port of Umm Qasr. When he returns shortly, he has been promised up to $120 (£72). His wife, a teacher, made $7 a month. Now she receives $120.

“We have more than enough to live on,” Mr Bari said. “For that I am thankful.”

But the British are acutely aware that in the volatile atmosphere of post-war Iraq violence can break out at any moment. Earlier this year, riots broke out after fuel shortages and electricity blackouts angered local residents. Normal services have since resumed but widespread unemployment, years of neglect and great expectations among many Basrans about their future could lead to more popular unrest, unless obvious prog ress is being made quickly.

There is also the very real fear of a terrorist campaign. Several weeks ago, a local resident tipped off the Army about the activities of some Saddam loyalists. When troops raided a house, they found a bomb factory capable of producing precisely the sort of devastating devices that have killed scores in Baghdad and terrorised the city.

“We cannot afford to be complacent,” said Sir Hilary Synnott, the British head of the coalition authority for southern Iraq, whose headquarters is located on the site of Saddam’s former presidential palace along the Shatt al-Arab waterway.

Sir Hilary insisted that the British were lucky to have had Basra as their sector. The city is a sixth the size of the capital. Most of the population is Shia Muslim, who were brutally repressed by Saddam and supported efforts to conduct the war. The city is a port with a strong trading tradition used to dealing with foreigners, including the British.

“We went through a bad spell in August, but, since then, there have been steady improvements,” said the former British envoy to Pakistan. “The community recognises that we are really trying.”

He said that attitude was reflected by 50 prominent local leaders who attended a traditional iftar dinner, when the daily fast is broken during the month of Ramadan.

While that relationship remains intact, Basra may be spared the bloodshed raging in central Iraq. But, as many here will tell you, this sleepier southern city has often in the past shared in the fate of its more turbulent northern sibling.

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