British Troops Play it Cool. But Anxiously They Eye the North

Beside the motorway north of Basra, two American soldiers lay dead, victims – like so many occupation soldiers in so many lands – of a mundane collision between military vehicles. An Apache helicopter had landed on the southbound carriageway to medevac their bodies from the baking desert while, amid the backed-up traffic, we stood beside our cars in the oven-like heat, watching this sudden tragedy afflict the all-powerful.

Some of the Iraqis had expressed their sympathy with the dead men – “Haram [it’s a shame],” they said quite simply – but as the chopper’s blades began to fight with the thick air, a US soldier approached us. He raised his left arm and gesticulated at the men to get into their cars, while with his other arm he pointed a gun at us. “How come you make this kind of gesture at me?” a young Iraqi said quietly, too far away for the American to hear. “We did not invite you here – and we are not in your country.”

The anger was palpable as the Iraqis – obedient as any Palestinian confronted by an Israeli soldier in identical circumstances – climbed back into their cars, muttering their humiliation at each other. And you could understand why the British down in Basra – the incident occurred in their area of operations – want to put a large piece of desert between themselves and the Americans. Not by chance do they now refer to the area to the north, designated for a 2,000-strong Polish army, as a cordon sanitaire between the British 19th Brigade and the American 3rd Infantry Division.

For a strange and uncomfortable reality has made itself felt around Basra, where British troops have still largely avoided the ferocious guerrilla attacks now daily visited upon US forces around Baghdad. In Basra, where Lancashire accents cut through the heat at checkpoints – “Cool, cool,” was the only reaction to my British passport as I was waved through – the alien accoutrements of the US occupation army, night-vision goggles, Tom Cruise shades and armadillo flak jackets, are largely absent. Instead of the American Humvees porcupined with rifle barrels, friendly old Land Rovers putter through the streets.

Most Brits are tired of hearing about the sensitivities they supposedly acquired in Northern Ireland, – most Irish would be even more exasperated – but in Basra they simply don’t adopt the aggressive posture and sometimes brutal behaviour of the US occupiers. So how soon before the contagion of guerrilla war reaches the occupiers of southern Iraq? Twice in the past two weeks there have been signs that time is in short supply.

Two roadside bombs – mortar bombs fused together and referred to by the military as “improvised explosive devices” – have gone off near British patrols, a disturbing extension of the identical, if still comparatively unsophisticated, booby trap used against the Americans. But these bombs made their first appearance only two weeks ago, when a US Humvee convoy was ambushed at Khan Dari, near Fallujah, killing one US soldier and wounding another. Since then, they’ve blown up in Mosul, Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah again, and now Basra. No wonder the Brits have a single piece of advice for anyone travelling north: stay away from Humvees.

If the two bombs in the Basra area were the work of the so-called “dead-enders” – the dreaded “remnants” of Saddam’s regime with whom the Americans are so obsessed – no one will worry too much. But if this is the work of the growing number of Islamist resistance groups confronting the Americans, the British will be much more concerned.

Clearly, this new type of bomb, replacing the previous Kalashnikov and rocket-propelled grenade assaults, did not spring up spontaneously across Iraq. Someone – maybe three or four men – travelled across the country teaching guerrillas how to make these devices, which calls forth that most disturbing adjective for guerrillas in any military vocabulary: co-ordinated.

On top of this, the British have still to end the organised crime around Basra, which is terrifying the city’s largely Shia Muslim inhabitants and preventing the rehabilitation of the great oilfields around the city. In the past two weeks, for example, no fewer than 110 electricity pylons – the entire pylons, from the wires to the base plates – have been brought down, dismantled and melted into steel blocks for export, presumably to Iran.

Gunfire still crackles over Basra at night, often the work of householders trying to frighten away the armies of thieves whom the British themselves originally allowed to loot the state’s infrastructure throughout the city. The director of Basra’s courts, Judge Wael Fahdeli, has successfully urged the British to set up “flying” checkpoints to capture guns – house searches are too provocative to be attempted here – and has warned looters’ families that they will be expelled from the city if the mass thievery does not end. But it is not enough. After all, there’s not much point in hunting for guns when a hand grenade costs just 88p (~ $1 U.S.), an AK-47 rifle £35 (~ $56 U.S.) and even a 9mm Parabellum pistol sells for £133 (~ $214 U.S.).

The Gramsha tribe, for instance – and Basra, like the rest of Iraq, is a tribal society – now charges protection money of £90 (~$145 U.S.) per oil and gas tanker on the roads around Basra. There was even a small vessel in the harbour last week with the legend “this boat is under the protection of the Gramshas” painted on the prow. A month ago, the Gramshas kidnapped the daughter and son of a Basra oil merchant, releasing them only a few days ago after a ransom was paid. Two Christians selling alcohol have been gunned down, one in his car after twice ignoring warnings apparently from Islamists.

But the real problem for Basra just now is the absence of any civil authority. The American-led occupation authorities in Baghdad – who like to be called the Coalition Provisional Authority – have exercised no authority at all down here. British soldiers are called in to fix sewage leaks and water-supply pipes. “The whole occupation seems to be entirely improvised,” one humanitarian worker said. “The Brits are relatively good at this, but it is still improvisation. We can’t see any reconstruction effort starting, and there’s still no civil authority.”

So Basra is a little like a volcano upon whose crust the Iraqis and the British both walk with burning feet, the Iraqis waiting for their occupiers to decide their future and the British rather more anxiously waiting to see if the violent epidemic to the north will embrace them before they can get out.

Correspondent for the Independent, Robert Fisk is resident in the Middle East and comments on events unfolding there