Sat, Aug 23, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Soldiers fight to keep the peace in Basra

PEACE ZONE?Under British supervision, life in Basra has regained an air of normality and, compared to the chaos in Baghdad, seems almost relaxed


Problems are legion and the threat of attack hangs in the air, but there are signs that British-run southern Iraq just might escape the cycle of violence afflicting Baghdad and emerge as a role model for the post-Saddam era.

"It's no worse here than the situation I have in my patch in Northern Ireland," remarked Stephen White, a senior policeman from the restive British province who has just arrived in Basra to advise the US-led coalition on policing the southern region.

The British forces that control the city of Basra and the south do get attacked -- they have lost seven men since the coalition declared major combat over on May 1 -- but they face much less hostility than their American counterparts further north.

So much so that the British often go on foot patrols without body armor and wearing berets instead of helmets.

The Americans have all but abandoned such patrols and leave their bases only to whizz through the streets of Baghdad and other flashpoint cities further north in their Humvees or their Bradley fighting vehicles.

"It's a presentation thing," said Second Lieutenant Mike Peele as he walked through Al-Hayania, a huge slum on the edge of Basra. "You appear too distant if you stay in your vehicles."

Peele's patrol did get stoned by gangs of slum children -- a regular occurrence stemming largely from youthful bravado -- but the adults in this neighborhood were on the whole welcoming.

"The British serve us," said Abu Bedn, an elderly man dressed in a traditional white robe, when asked what he thought of the foreign troops marching through his area. "No problem. They got rid of the criminal Saddam."

Earlier in August, Basra faced two days of riots sparked by a combination of extreme summer heat, faltering electricity supplies and a chronic fuel shortage.

The British have since been at pains to point out just how hard they are working to remedy the situation -- fixing sabotaged electricity lines, cracking down on oil smugglers, or boosting security at oil facilities and power stations.

Their efforts appear to be paying off.

"We're still getting electricity only for part of the day, but the huge queues at the petrol stations have gone and I think the streets are safer," said one young woman out shopping in central Basra.

The city, once known as the Venice of the Orient because of its network of canals and pleasing architecture, has clearly seen better days. Its canals are filthy, it is dotted with bombed-out buildings and those that remain are mostly in disrepair.

But life here has regained an air of normality and, compared to the tense atmosphere of Baghdad, Basra seems almost relaxed.

Gunfire frequently rends the night air but there is no curfew here, and people shop or sip tea in cafes until well after midnight.

The Shiite Muslim clergy play a key role in maintaining the relative stability. Shiites are a minority in the wider Islamic world but in Iraq they make up at least 60 percent of the population.

At weekly prayers last Friday, one of the most influential imams, Sheikh Sabah Al-Saadi, called on the faithful not to demonstrate against the British, because, he warned, criminals were manipulating such protests.

But that message should not be interpreted as support for the occupying forces.

"No country can accept being ruled by outsiders," Saadi told reporters on Thursday, adding the coalition forces did not come to help Iraq but to control the country's oil and take advantage of its strategic position.

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