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Basra: What the f*** are we doing here?

In his second report from Iraq, this writer says British rule in Basra is a sham, conducted from behind sandbags in a deal with Shia leaders

FORGET all that smug stuff in the British media about the way our troops (unlike the arrogant and out-of-touch Yanks) know how to get on with the natives — every soldier a diplomat, etc — and have turned their southern Iraqi zone around Basra into a haven of peaceful reconstruction.

The place is a stinking mess and the townsfolk are unemployed and desperate.

There is far less to show for a year’s occupation than there should be, and if our (undoubted) attempts to make friends with the locals seem to have brought peace, then that will be because their Shia leaders have yet to stir the mob against us. Bigger forces are at work than can be tamed with a handshake, and all that goodwill could disappear in a puff of smoke.

I went to Basra by train. Incredibly, there still is one — just. Strangely, almost no Westerners seem to have tried it. True, there have been explosions, and attacks on trains; but the highway between the two cities is subject both to insurgency and banditry so that few motorists dare to travel by night, and goods vehicles travel in 30-strong convoys between US military Humvees.

The railway from Baghdad to Basra is the first section of what was once no doubt a grand British plan to link Syria to the Gulf. For some 500 dispiriting kilometres it runs not far from the Tigris but you never see the river, only a limitless, flat, ugly river basin: muddy scrub, fields of corn, palm groves sheltering the blackened hulks of Iraqi tanks that failed to hide and, as you get closer to the Tigris’s confluence with the Euphrates, endless mudflats, then marshes, reeds and trenches to either side and the occasional raised pole of a Marsh Arab’s canoe.

You leave the sad magnificence of Baghdad Central Railway Station at 8.30am, nosing through vast marshalling yards, derelict, littered with the occasional rusting hulk of a steam locomotive, and gathering speed across miles of untidy middle-class suburbs. Roads cross the track everywhere. All booms, gates and warning lights are long wrecked and the train simply whistles at trusting goats, Iraqis and motorised traffic to clear the track.

Our smart new green-and-yellow Chinese-made diesel loco pulled only three carriages, and there cannot have been more than thirty passengers on board. I quickly saw why. The carriages were smashed to bits. Doors were off, seats were ripped out, windows cracked and dust came belching up through holes in the floor. The whole 12-hour train ride to Basra cost little more than a dollar (a seat in a shared taxi costs 20 times as much) but even cash-strapped Iraqis have their pride. Only one other compartment in my carriage was occupied: by a gentle and charming Iraqi family, obviously poor, and too numerous — with six children — to fit in a car.

From one or two individuals a sense of luminous goodness is somehow communicated without words (they had only a few in English) and over the hours ahead I was seized with an intense fondness for Adnan and Leila, their four daughters, Hadir (who kept dusting my seat), Gofran, Hadil and Asraa, their son Ali and their tiny baby boy, Hossain, tightly wrapped in swaddling clothes. They lived in Basra but had been visiting Leila’s relations near Baghdad. We had a happy photo session together and I would like to have sent them the results, but there is no postal service in Iraq.

Some 50km out of Baghdad, at a station called Mahmodiga, our train stopped. There was an IED (improvised explosive device) scare at the next station, Iskandariyah. Nobody knew if or when we would be able to continue our journey. I paced the track and stared out over the litter of poor, flat-roofed little houses on either side of the track, all displaying their Shia flags of red, green or black — representing different mullahs — and listened to frogs singing from a big, filthy, reed-strewn puddle.

After an hour, passengers began abandoning our train, bags in hand, seeking road transport. Everyone was eating nuts (Iraqis pull sunflower seeds and roasted melon pips from their pockets as Americans pull Wrigley’s gum) and seeking information; nobody had any to offer; a lack which ran like a leitmotiv through all my time in Iraq. After two hours there was almost nobody but me and the photographer, and the nice family in the next-door compartment, too poor to pay for a taxi.

After three hours the loco whistled and moved off, we passengers jumping on before the carriages got up speed, the broken doors being easy to kick open. We soon passed Iskandariyah but saw no bomb, only a long-exploded bus and, later, a totally (but not recently) demolished oil-train, each tanker blown out by grenades.

This was unwelded track; the train proceeding with an old-fashioned clickety-click which grew to an urgent and hammering volume as our top speed of about 50mph was reached and sand (and sometimes, in the marshes, spray) billowed through the carriages. I hung from the door, a warm desert wind in my face. Two hundreds yards away a US military convoy kept pace on the highway which here ran in parallel. The pale, nervy faces of the American soldiers pointing guns from their Humvees — astonished to see an unarmed Westerner hanging from the train — were a picture.

We passed through stations whose names — al-Nasiriyah, Najaf — stirred vague memories of news reports of killings. As dusk fell the plain grew wetter and the marshes seemed to steal upon us, until the track was confined to a causeway; sometimes you could see lights, sometimes a little mud house on a piece of dry ground, and sometimes the outline of a long boat among the shadowy reeds. The clickety-click grew faster, almost panicky. We were catching up lost time.

Then the reeds cleared and we were back in near desert. It was dark now and the skyline was lit by the huge orange flares of the southern oil wells, ragged flames leaping in the wind and smoke turning the sky from dark blue to black along the horizon. Then the lights of houses began to crowd in on us; roads crossed the track again; traffic honked; and by nine — only half an hour late — we pulled into Basra station. We had caught up almost all the three hours lost.

I bade my new friends, the Iraqi family, a regretful farewell, sad that there would be no way to get in touch again, and hailed a taxi to al- Morbad (regulars call it Morbid) Hotel. It was full of security men: great hulks of thirtysomething Westerners who look like mercenaries, ex-army (many of them), British, American, French, German, tattoos with designs such as barbed wire around bare biceps, guns tucked into belts and earning up to $500 a day to work with oil companies or foreign contractors. I reckon there are thousands of these men following fortune into Iraq. Every now and again one of them gets blown up or shot, but the deaths do not count toward figures for military casualties. To my amazement I found that Washington is employing these civilians, in place of the armed forces, to guard American zones in Iraq. One US agency providing such personnel is called, without irony, Custer Battles.

I showered off the dust, ate a plateful of tasty Basra prawns, and slept soundly under a big, slow-revolving ceiling fan.

FLOWING past Basra from the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates into the Persian Gulf, the Shatt al-Arab river is almost beautiful — and would be, had the Iranians not blown up all the palm groves across the water during the Iran-Iraq war. The damaged landscape was pointed out to me by Patrick Wright, our man in Basra, from the riverside park of palaces and mansions where the British Army and the civil administration are stationed , moving around in surreal little white electric golf carts.

Wright, a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Arabist with the weary rationality of one who has seen more flyblown Middle Eastern countries than he cares to remember, did tell me his official title, and painstakingly explained how he fitted into the Coalition Provisional Authority machine, but at the presence of the word “co-ordinator” I have learnt to switch off and save precious memory cells. Recourse to this term is a reliable tell-tale sign of an organisation which does not know, or will not say, what it is there for.

We can co-ordinate until the camels come home in Iraq, but in the end somebody is going to have to do something; somebody is going to have to administer; somebody is going to have to clear the rubbish from the Basra streets.

This is a big, filthy city whose troubles plainly go back long before the most recent war. Read what you like in the admiring British press, but the fact is that as the occupying power we have done a deal with local Shia leaders, and retreated behind the sandbags, restricting ourselves to the occasional patrol, a sally or two to wave and shake hands with the natives, and the dispatch of a few no doubt admirable technical teams from Britain to get the water and the power back on.

They are back on. Beyond that, one has the impression of a well-mannered holding operation. We are there, as Wright admitted, “on sufferance”. Everybody complains about street crime (we foiled attempts to steal our satellite phone in the filthy, crowded, well-stocked market and blocked streets); nobody travels by night; everybody detests the Americans (as usual), and most people seem to view the British as somewhat less offensive sidekicks to the real Emperor: George W. Bush.

There is no serious attempt to administer this place. Outside the market, where ancient street-photographers with ancient cameras take snaps for passport applications, which scribes with desks on the rubble-strewn pavement help Iraqi would-be emigrants to fill in, three new-uniformed Iraqi policemen came up to my interpreter and asked if I would report, without naming or photographing them, that in order to get their posts as trainees they had had to pay a lump-sum bribe to a third-party, and now had to pay one third of their monthly salaries to the same person, to keep their jobs.

And this is a city still under British control. Three young Iraqis approached me separately in the street and asked if I could help them to get a job, any job.

In the market I bought a bag of nuts. As I left, the little boy manning the adjacent stall ran after me holding out a $50 note. I had dropped it getting out my dinars. He was about 10. Full of gratitude for his honesty, I offered him a small reward. Gravely he declined my dinars, placing his right hand over his heart, as Iraqis do, to signify sincerity. Fifty dollars must have been more than that boy earns in a month.

Back in the British green zone that afternoon I passed the checkpoint of British squaddies (“The Times, sir? That’s the intellectual one, innit?”) and met up with some journalists and press officers who were in Basra on a visit sponsored by the Department for International Development. Except that they were not in Basra. They were in a heavily guarded park, sprinkled with tawdry mansions and occupied by the British, whither they had been brought from the airport. Allowed a couple of guided excursions to see a generator and a sewage plant, they asked me what the real Basra was like. “We were told we could not go there, for security reasons, one told me.”

They were shortly to be flown back, via Cyprus. With them I joined a Royal Navy patrol speedboat for an hour on the river, where the British officer in charge, the inevitable Tim, pleasant, jokey, public-school, steered us past the upturned hulk of Saddam’s sunken yacht, and an idle dockyard of rusting cranes and impounded cargo ships.

He and his heavily-armed crew waved to Iraqis on the shore. They did this so often that I realised they must be under orders to wave whenever possible.

As we sped under a bridge our gunman trained his weapon on the pedestrians passing above, just in case, then swivelled quickly round to do the same from behind as we emerged from under the bridge. Meanwhile, his colleagues just kept waving, frantically. It sort of summed things up.

Before leaving the zone the photographer and I spent a while downloading our pictures for the crew. This gave me the chance to inspect the interior of a sizeable palace. Arches were sealed off with plywood. Above, the ceiling was of fluted domes. Below were a scattering of troops’ beds, a ping-pong table and a television. Girlie pictures were pinned to the cracked walls. Men were sitting and lying around. I think the question in their minds was the question in mine. What the f *** are we doing here?

A SIX-HOUR taxi-ride back to Baghdad in an immaculate but elderly white Chevrolet Classic Caprice may have used up more of my nine lives than patrolling with the Americans in a Humvee. Death in a road accident remains the greatest of the dangers faced by Iraqis, who do not seem to care, and their foreign visitors, who do. There were at least 20 security roadblocks, but, as our driver pointed out, the town in which motorists were in the greatest danger of ambush seems to have kept the soldiers out.

Clutching the apricot tree I had bought in Basra to plant in Derbyshire (if I could get it though Customs), I staggered thankfully back into The Times’s house in Baghdad, which I was to quit the next morning.

As it turned out, my Times colleagues were to quit the house soon, too. Twice a passing car stopped for a moment for its driver to inform our Iraqi staff that the foreign journalists had better leave the house, or retribution would follow. They now have, and moved into a heavily guarded central hotel.

But I knew nothing of this as I set out early for the most heavily guarded place in Iraq: the airport. “It can take two hours to get through security to the terminal,” my colleagues had cautioned. It took five minutes. My Iraqi driver, acting on instinct as Iraqi drivers do, sailed straight past three lines of waiting traffic at the security checkpoint, and through a channel marked “military personnel only”.

A soldier moved towards us and we reached for our IDs — but he waved us through. This happened at the next two checks, too. Thus, with neither our substantial vehicle nor our identities checked, we drove right up to the terminal doors. Three hours early, I had time to inspect the terminal, which is as it was left on the eve of invasion, frozen in time, with all the international flights still marked on the departures board.

There is only one now: to Amman, with Royal Jordanian Airlines. Along with some Iraqi ministers (more chance of being bombed, then, I thought) and a man who had come to try to sell a telephone system for Baghdad, I climbed into an unmarked white Fokker passenger jet.

We took off, then banked immediately into a steep upward corkscrew, keeping the runway and guarded airport zone directly below us until we had reached about 5,000ft. Then, high enough to reduce the chances of being shot down, we headed out across the desert toward Jordan.

In my head I carried a jumble of memories, some, but not all, unhappy and confused. I thought of all the Iraqis who had asked me: “Where are they keeping Saddam?” — as though, being a Westerner, I must know; just as we think that Iraqis, being Iraqis, know what is going on the street. But nobody knows anything and we are all in the dark.

I thought of that lovely Iraqi family in the railway compartment. Everywhere there are good people with simple hopes: for jobs, health and security. I thought of the little boy in Basra market, handing me back my dropped fifty bucks with such a fierce sense of honour. And I thought of the British troops in that tawdry palace by the Shatt al-Arab river; their girlie mags; their ping-pong table; and their unspoken question: “What the f*** are we doing here?”