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[casi-analysis] casi-news digest, Vol 1 #145 - 1 msg

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Today's Topics:

   1. BBC: how bad can things get (Daniel O'Huiginn)


Message: 1
Date: Wed, 22 Sep 2004 13:04:29 +0100 (BST)
From: Daniel O'Huiginn <>
Subject: BBC: how bad can things get

Nice summary of the situation in Basra, plus the fascinating statistic
that "in local elections in the British sector this week, turnout was just
15%." Why, I wonder: security problems, boycotts, perception that
politicians have no real power?

Iraq: How bad can things get?
By Paul Wood
BBC Middle East correspondent, Basra

Just how bad are things in Iraq? Since just last week it has seen hundreds
of deaths, suicide bombings, beheadings, yet more people kidnapped.

When I visited Basra exactly one year ago it was safe enough to stay in
town on our own.

This time, we wouldn't dream of doing that. The chances of being kidnapped
are too great.

It's true there have been some real, solid achievements over the past

There aren't petrol queues, or petrol riots, in Basra any more.

The electricity is on for longer. And oil exports from the south are up to
2.9 million barrels a day.

But here are some other statistics. Last month, the British Army fired
100,000 rounds of ammunition in southern Iraq.

The base in al-Ammara sustained more than 400 direct mortar hits.

The British battalion there counted some 853 separate attacks of different
kinds: mortars, roadside bombs, rockets and machine-gun fire.

No British regiment has had such intense "contact", as they call it, since

Fury over Najaf

A year ago, the British Army was still congratulating itself on running
one of the more peaceful parts of Iraq.

        It seems sometimes UK troops are gingerly walking on the thin
crust of a volcano, wondering how much pressure is building below
If you'd predicted all this, it would have been dismissed as

British officers characterise the fighting in August as merely a spike in
the violence.

They say quite rightly that the trouble had a particular cause.

The Americans were battling Shia gunmen loyal to the radical cleric
Moqtada Sadr in Najaf.

The fury spilled over into Basra and al-Ammara.

The anger was fuelled by the widespread belief that US-led forces were
attacking the two holy shrines in Najaf.

At the height of the crisis, a leading Shia figure in Basra told a British
Brigadier: "There are lots of moderates here who support you. But if the
shrines are touched, I'll kill you myself."

Uprising fears

Eventually a peace deal in Najaf brought peace to the rest of the south

Since the shrines were not touched, only about 400 hard-core gunmen joined
the fight against the multi-national forces in Basra.

Still, in an area which is 99% Shia, the great danger for the British is
of a general uprising.

It sometimes seems as if the troops are gingerly walking on the thin crust
of a volcano, wondering how much pressure is building below.

The British - with tanks, air support and thousands of soldiers - say they
could have destroyed the small militia force attacking them.

But they were asked by local people not to turn Basra into a war zone.

And because they didn't, the majority still welcomes them here.

Grateful for security

We went on a British patrol in the dead of night to stop and search
vehicles on the road from al-Ammara to Basra.

        None of Basra's 25,000 police officers came to the aid of the
British soldiers in the August fighting. Some even helped the gunmen
At our checkpoint, drivers were made to get out and show their ID cards
while soldiers looked under the seats and in the boot for illegal weapons.

Not one of the drivers or passengers expressed any resentment at this.

One explained that hostage-taking was especially bad on that stretch of

The gangs usually kidnap a driver, his lorry and its cargo, he said, and
ransom the whole lot back to the company concerned.

Many drivers are killed. It's no surprise then that people are glad of the
British presence.

Vicious intimidation

The problem is that very few people are actively supporting the fight
against the militants.

A vicious campaign of intimidation doesn't help matters.

Last month, five cleaning ladies at a British base were murdered on their
way to work.

Two local translators disappeared. Their severed heads were found outside
the front gate.

But perhaps the most worrying development of the August fighting was that
none of Basra's 25,000 police officers came to the aid of the British
soldiers. Some even helped the gunmen.

I met one of the senior civilian political advisors to the military

Every time he came to Basra things seemed a "step change worse", he said.

The best thing to happen, he went on, would be for a new Islamic
government to be elected in January which would ask multi-national forces
to leave.

I don't think he was being facetious.

Exit strategy

Elections do form part of the exit strategy, but not in this way.

The hope is that national elections in January will produce a government
with the authority and the legitimacy to face down the gunmen on its own.

But in local elections in the British sector this week, turnout was just

A government election with that much backing would be just one faction in
the civil war which some American intelligence officials believe is

That is very much the worst case. But whatever happens, British officers
no longer have any illusions that the southern corner of Iraq they run
will be immune from the violence.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2004/09/21 09:08:39 GMT

Daniel O'Huiginn
07745 192426
24, Priory Road, Cambridge

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