22 November 2008

Would you send used Land Rovers into this?

The official termination of hostilities in Iraq on 1 May 2003 brought with it a brief honeymoon for British forces occupying southern Iraq. The predominantly Shia population did not show they same degree of antagonism to the occupying forces as did the deposed Sunni further north and, for a period, troops were able to patrol in soft hats, without body armour.

Media coverage of that early period has already begun to focus on the "soft hat" patrols, backed by a trickle of "feel good" stories typified by a BBC contribution from the BBC on 13 April 2003. This told of a Northumberland soldier who had liberated a "unique symbol of Iraq's fresh hope for the future" - a litter of puppies. Born in the week that British soldiers had occupied Basra, the five puppies had sought and found refuge in an Army compound in the centre of Basra. "Sentimental soldiers" of Zulu Company 1st Battalion Royal Regiment Fusiliers had adopted the puppies and their wild mother and taken them under their protection.

While a few lucky puppies might have prospered, the British were not getting off to a good start. Casting around for an experienced Iraqi to head an interim administration in Basra, British Army intelligence "talent-spotters" had nominated tribal sheikh Muzahim Mustafa Kanan al-Tamimi, a man considered sufficiently distanced from the regime to make his appointment acceptable to local people.

But, reported The Daily Telegraph, "they appear to have miscalculated." It turned out that their chosen man had been a former brigadier in Saddam Hussein's army and a member of the Ba'ath Party. The announcement of his role had been greeted with tumult in Basra. A rival clan had staged a near-riot outside his home as he had held talks with other local leaders. British troops had to be called in to calm the situation. Hundreds of protesters marched through the city centre waving banners reading: "No to tribal government. No to old Ba'ath party members. Yes to freedom."

Sheikh al-Tamimi was quietly dropped but that was by no means the end of the strife. When the Army finally appointed an interim council, half of the dozen members were said to have held prominent places in the fallen regime. One of them, Ghalib Cubba, a rich businessman known in Basra as "Saddam's banker", had held soirees at which the leader known as Chemical Ali had been a regular guest. Others included the imam of Saddam’s mosque and a university lecturer who had had a reputation for converting students to the Ba'ath cause. As news of the council's make-up filtered through to the streets, reported The Telegraph, "some appointments drew fire."

At this stage the "fire" was verbal rather than physical. There were still three brigades of British troops in southern Iraq, plus a smattering of forces from other nationalities, enough to contain small demonstrations. But that was to change. In late April, it was announced that the force level would be reduced to one brigade. The stage was being set for the coming turmoil, as troops numbers were to be reduced to a level below that which many believed safe.

Nevertheless, even though the US-held zones were erupting into violence, Basra remained quite – on the surface at least. This allowed a number of commentators to make comparisons between the two areas, with favourable comments directed at the British – even if they were more a stick with which to beat President Bush than they were genuine compliments.

That was undoubtedly part of the motivation for an editorial in May 2003 when the US tabloid USA Today ran an editorial headed: "British postwar approach provides model for US". While in Baghdad, the paper noted, US soldiers in full combat gear sit nervously atop tanks scanning the horizon through gun sights, "the atmosphere in Basra is more relaxed." It continued:

The British forces that run the city have restored water and electricity to pre-war levels and have won the locals' trust. Soldiers are barely noticed: Unlike the armored convoys rumbling through Baghdad, an occasional jeep carries one or two soldiers sporting berets instead of combat helmets. British and Iraqi police conduct joint foot patrols. Often, a British officer is seen gossiping with a local sheikh or fixing the plumbing in a hospital. Some looting persists at night, but chaos and shortages are far less than in Baghdad.
US is bungling the country's postwar reconstruction. In other words, the US is failing to achieve the same success that the British have accomplished in restoring Basra to normalcy. And in so doing, it endangers Bush's pledge to replace Saddam Hussein's brutal regime with a prosperous democracy.

Although less visible – and considerably less well reported – behind the scenes it was less than sweetness and light. Some of this was picked up by The Daily Telegraph when, on 9 May, it reported on how "fanatics" were trying to fill the power vacuum left by the fall of Saddam, putting a community in fear. This particular story focused on how Catholics selling alcohol in Basra were being forced to shut up shop and were being murdered if they did not.

The finger had been pointed at several Shia groups with fundamentalist tendencies that were suppressed under Saddam. Their leaders had been forced into exile and were now starting to return, mainly from neighbouring Iran. Among them were names that were to become very familiar to Western readers. One was Mohammed Bakr al Hakim, leader of the Badr Corps, the paramilitary wing of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution. Another was the party of Said El Sadr, who had been killed by the Saddam regime in 1999. But the name on most people's lips was the El Dawa Religious Party, a grouping with extremist tendencies whose founder, Mohammed Bakr El Sadr - a cousin of Said – had been hanged by the regime in 1980.

It was al-Hakim, though, who was making the most noise, at least, according to Stephen Farrell of The Times. On 12 May, he described the "huge crowds" that had greeted the ayatollah's return from exile and his message that US-led forces should leave the country. There were no overt threats – at least none recorded by Farrell. Simply, al-Hakim was telling the crowds, estimated at 60,000 in one location, that "this nation (Iraq) wants to preserve its independence and the coalition forces must leave this country." In what Farrell called a "nuanced" message, al-Hakim declared, "We must never permit the presence of foreigners and we must not be their slaves. We must show that we can rule ourselves." The speech created, "an effect akin to drums of war", Farrell observed.

A sanguine assessment also came from The Economist on 15 May. It noted, under the title, "Insecurity in Basra, Iraq's second largest city," that while every household in Basra had two or three guns, according to a witness to the daylight murder of two Christian liquor-dealers, the British, were ill-equipped and disinclined to fill the gap left by the 16,000 police who used to keep order in the city and the surrounding countryside.

Until last Saturday, the magazine said, metropolitan Basra was being policed by 48 armed British military policemen, plus 900 unarmed locals: they were detaining just four or five miscreants daily. On 10 May, some 500 more Iraqi policemen had joined the force, and more were to follow, but it was to be months before they were trained.

Despite this, we saw evidence of what was clearly a determination of the British government to disengage from the administration of southern Iraq. On that 15 May, the control of the Iraqi port town of Umm Qasr, to the south of Basra, was handed over to the local authority, the first such transfer of power since the invasion.

The claims of "success", however, were overshadowed by allegations that, in its impatience to leave, the Army was handing power to a corrupt interim council that had been embezzling funds and aid. One soldier had been less than happy, declaring: "It has not done much for morale among the Pioneers. We've worked hard to get where we are today, but there is concern as to just what we're leaving ordinary people with." He described the handover as a "bloody disaster".

There was also concern that members of the police force, currently under the supervision of the Royal Military Police, had been using "old-style techniques" to beat confessions out of those they have arrested. Disgruntlement among troops across the south over the choice of new police officers, many of them former Ba'athists, was rife. "They're all murdering bastards," said one lieutenant at a police station in Basra, where MPs had been pulled out.

Meanwhile, the problems of administering Basra as a whole were coming back to haunt the military administration. After their attempt a month earlier to find local leaders to run an interim council, commanders gave up, disbanding the council and forming an interim committee dealing with the technical tasks of reconstruction, and a civic forum of political leaders. The latter was to work on setting up a democratic local government.

The "utilities" committee was headed by Brigadier Adrian Bradshaw, the commander of the British Seventh Brigade. Despite chronic shortages of water and electricity, rubbish is piling up in the streets and continued looting, the move was not well received. When the committee met for the first time on Sunday 1 June, as many as 5,000 gathered outside the military base in Basra, led by Shia Muslim clerics. They carried banners with "No to British rule over Basra" and "We can rule ourselves" on them. One of the organisers of the demonstration, Sheikh Ahmed Malki, was unequivocal. He told the news agency AFP: "We demand an Iraqi governor, elected by the people while they are imposing a British governor on us."

Earlier that week, prime minister Tony Blair had visited British troops in Basra and praised them for the way they had taken the city. He was the first foreign leader to visit postwar Iraq, where he told the soldiers they were now rebuilding in relative peace. "You fought the battle, you won the battle, and you fought it with great courage and valor," he said. "But it didn't stop there. You then went on to try to make something of the country you had liberated. And I think that's a lesson for armed forces everywhere, the world over."

The inhabitants of Basra do not seem to have been impressed. This was a city where, after dark, gunfire could be heard across the city and looting of government buildings, businesses and homes continued. And news was spreading of a scandal over "shocking pictures" revealed by The Sun newspaper, which showed male Iraqis at a Basra military base apparently forced into sexual positions by their British captors. In another, a prisoner was suspended by rope from a fork-lift truck driven by a laughing British soldier. Fusilier Gary Bartlam, 18, had been detained by civilian police after he had taken a roll of film to be developed to a shop in his hometown of Tamworth, Staffordshire.

The story flashed around the world, even appearing in the Australian Sun-Herald. Although an English language story, the Sun's lurid details were translated into Arabic and posted on a number of websites, remaining to this day. This coincided with a story, just three days later, of MoD police investigating the death of two Iraqi civilians in British custody. The gilt was rapidly rubbing off the gingerbread.

Bad news of a different kind came a few days later when, on 6 June, Sheikh Ali Najm al-Saadun, who headed an influential tribe in Basra, was shot dead by four hooded assailants. The location was near the Basra office of the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the main Iraqi Shiite movement. The al-Saadun tribe had close ties with the deposed Baath regime of Saddam Hussein. Members of his tribe said they suspected the group's armed wing, the Badr Brigade, of being behind the murder.

The next day, what were described as "local officials" in Basra were reported complaining of a "significant escalation" of political militancy against the interim authorities. Saboteurs appeared to be targeting the power grid with the aim of crippling a key oil refinery. A series of destructive attacks on carefully selected power lines around Basra in the recent weeks had played havoc with the energy-hungry Basra Refinery, an important source of petrol for the domestic market. Looting – a continuous problem - had not been a motive, the officials had ventured, because no cables had been stolen from the toppled electrical towers.

That same day, the Arab news agency Al-Jazeera was reporting that hundreds of lawyers had demonstrated in Basra to demand the British rid the judiciary of Ba'thists, reinstated after the war. The BBC reported that a group of around 2,000 Shi'ite Muslims had also staged a demonstration, this one against the presence of British forces in Basra. Led by clerics, the protestershad marched through the city shouting, "No to Tony Blair, no to Satan." Their protest ended in front of the headquarters of the British military command in Basra, where they chanted, "Leave peacefully lest we expel you through our jihad." They then handed in a petition demanding a British pull-out to the outskirts of the city.

Significantly, although the name was not yet to mean much to most people in Britian, the protesters were said to have rallied on the instructions of an organisation named after Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr. The "drums of war" were beating louder.

What may or may not have been significant was another report that a cell of Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen militia had been uncovered. This emerged after the arrest of one of its members, Haidar Yassin Daoud al-Tamimi. He confessed to having been sent to Basra by Baathist officials to "gather information about al-Dawa and British forces" in preparation for launching attacks against them. He claimed that the Baath and Saddam's Fedayeen had "a large network of activists in (Basra) province as well as a cache of arms, including heavy weapons, in one of the villages of the area."

At that time, there had been innumerable rumours of a come-back from Saddam Hussein – who was still at large - and his loyalists. These were not to come to anything. The threat was closer to home, a further presentiment of which came with a report that British military vehicles had been stoned in Basra. As many as 10,000 people had taken to the streets to demand self-government. Again they were led by Shia clerics, chanting threatening slogans such as, "Answer our demands or you will regret it".

Of more immediate concern, perhaps, to the ordinary people was the dire state of the utilities, with a report of the telephone system still disabled, Basra telephones working only for local calls. But, out of the spotlight, there were ever-increasing signs that the hard men were taking over. One such was the fate Saad Bazzaz's Arabic-language newspaper, Azzaman. Bazzaz, one of the new style of media entrepreneurs in Iraq, ran separate editions for Baghdad and one for Basra. Every day, the paper carried on its back page photographs of glamorous western women, models and movie stars. His offices in Basra had been attacked by Shia extremists.

A further insight as to the conditions came from New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof. Writing for his paper after a visit to Iraq, he recounted a discussion with a taxi driver in Basra who expressed fears that the occupation was falling apart. With Saddam still at large, there werereal fears that he would return, the driver telling Kristof that some of his passengers now they wished he would come back, "because at least under him we had security." Insecurity casts a huge shadow over all of Iraq, wrote Kristof:

Few people dare go out at night, and even in the day there are carjackings and armed robberies. On the highways, bandits sometimes rake cars with automatic weapons so that they can plunder them. On my first night back in Iraq, I sat outside my little hotel in Basra, trying to make my satellite phone work and listening to gunfire erupting around the city.
He then continued with an account of conditions at Basra General Hospital:

… Dr. Abdul Wahhab frets that the medical situation is worse than before the war. There is no functioning health ministry to procure drugs, water shortages have led to cholera as families drink from rivers that are also sewers, and UNICEF calculates that 7.7 percent of Iraqi children under 5, almost twice the rate before the war, now suffer from acute malnutrition.

On top of all that, Dr. Wahhab really got fed up last week when a gang of bandits attacked the hospital's infectious diseases unit, firing automatic weapons and hurling grenades as doctors and patients scattered. The bandits were after the air-conditioners.
Meanwhile, in what in retrospect seemed an attempt to keep a lid on a deteriorating situation, Britain was paying monthly wages to thousands of demobilised Iraqi soldiers, after the The US administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremner, had disbanded the Army, leaving some 400,000 people out of a job. The payments were described as part of Britain's hearts-and-minds campaign to avoid stirring up resentment against the occupation of Iraq. There was, however, an "unspoken desire" to reduce the threat of the Shi'ite population in the south taking up weapons against British soldiers as some Sunnis had done against US forces.

As another indication of how security in the city of Basra had deteriorated, a British Army Major had become southern Iraq's chief paymaster, after UK forces had secured the vaults of the central bank in Basra and moved large amounts of money to a secure military base before looters could reach it. Not even the banks were safe.

Yet, as the demonstrations and unrest gathered pace, with the discovery of leaflets calling on the people of southern Iraq to rise up against the British, Brigadier Adrian Bradshaw, commander of the 7th Armoured Brigade, told BBC radio that protests in Basra were simply part of the normal process of democracy establishing itself. "We are not worried," said Bradshaw, "What we are seeing here is a new emerging democracy starting to flex its muscles. I think we should expect to see a certain amount of expression of opinion." "We don't feel threatened in southern Iraq. That is because we have won the people’s trust by being open with the Iraqis we meet."

Something then was to happen, which was to change that view. A hundred miles of so north of Basra, in the province of Maysan – also within the British sphere of operations – lay the small town of Majar al-Kabir, itself 15 miles south of the provincial capital, al Amarah. The area itself was a Shia stronghold which had suffered greatly under the rule of Saddam Hussein and, when British troops initially entered this town, they had been treated as liberators. Early in June, British politicians had even been taken to al Amarah to see for themselves how well the transition from the old regime to a new elected authority was going. British troops in the area were ordered not to wear body armour or helmets.

However, British forces had been carrying out a programme of disarming the population, carrying out house searches and road blocks in an attempt to gather up the weaponary. By all accounts, this policy had been extemely unpopular, so much so that on Monday 23 June, negotiations had been conducted with local leaders and an agreement reached – the nature of which was disputed – which appeared to have been taken by the locals as an agreement than searches would be suspended.

Then, on the Tuesday morning, at around 9am local time, a detachment from the 1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment, 12 soldiers in all, arrived in Majar al-Kabir in two Pinzgauer military vehicles, accompanied by a group of local Iraqi militia. According to senior officers after the events that were to happen, they had arrived to take part in what was called a "routine joint patrol" in the town. There had been no intention to search the houses.

The soldiers' intentions were misinterpreted and the detachment was quickly surrounded by a 500-strong group of angry residents. Stones were thrown, soldiers retaliated with a baton round and shooting then erupted on both sides. Another small force of paratroopers sought to rescue them but could not get through. Fire became so intense that the soldiers had been forced to abandon their vehicles and seek shelter, calling for reinforcements. An RAF Chinook was despatched with another relief force but it came under sustained ground fire and was forced to turn away, with seven injured on board. A fierce firefight lasted for three hours, with gunmen "so frenzied" that as soon as one was shot, another one would take his place. The 12 soldiers were eventually rescued by troops in Scimitars light tanks, backed by air cover.

Unknown to the Paras, however, in another part of town, at the local police station, there were six Royal Military Police from 156 Provost Company. With the Paras gone, the crowd turned their attention to the MPs, surrounding the police station. With limited ammunition and no radio communications, they were unable to save themselves and were slaughtered by the crowd.

The immediate political response from London was soothing. Tony Blair insisted that there was no need for more troops. He had been told, he said, by the Chief of Defence Staff Sir Michael Walker that British commanders inside Iraq felt they had enough troops on the ground. Of the situation of a whole, he declared, "Progress is being made but it is a job literally of rebuilding a country and it will take time. I think it is necessary to take the time to get the job done." The Army was also anxious to demonstrate that it was "business as usual", enlisting the help of the BBC to days after the death of the MPs to run a "feel good" piece about a soft-hat patrol in Basra.

On the Saturday, 28 June, however, the Paras returned to Majar-al-Kabir and that was anything but business as usual. They turned out in force, 500-strong, backed by 100 armoured vehicles including Challenger tanks and attack helicopters. They were greeted by freshly-painted banners, in both Arabic and English, denouncing the British Army. One demanded, "Why did you shed the blood of innocent unarmed people?" Another read: "Where is the freedom of Iraq? Is it patrolling military forces and searching houses?" The display of force, though, was largely symbolic. The Paras stayed for barely an hour and carried out no weapons searches.

Anton La Guardia, diplomatic editor of The Daily Telegraph was in no doubt that the honeymoon was over. British ministers, he wrote, in recent weeks had been "very worried" about the situation in Iraq and there had been insistent murmurings about the need for more troops. Bernard Jenkin, the Conservative defence spokesman, was cited, saying: "We have the best trained and equipped troops to deal with these threats, but if we require more troops in Iraq to operate safely, then the Government must send more troops."

Jenkin's views were echoed by Major Charles Heyman, Editor of Jane's World Armies. Writing in The Times, he took the view that it was impossible to get away from the stark reality that there were not enough coalition troops on the ground in Iraq. The death of the six MPs he regarded as "bound to happen". The situation could get worse and it was likely that "there could be more casualties during the coming months.” The signs are, wrote Heyman, "that this could become a nasty, long, drawn out campaign across the whole of the country, and at a time like this the Government has two options, either reinforce or withdraw." He could not predict the outcome of the campaign with any certainty but, he concluded, "I can look at the evidence and say that the security situation is likely to worsen during the coming months."

Indicating how far opinion was split, though, journalist Charles Recknagel wrote a piece citing two opposing experts. On the one hand, he had Michael Clarke of the Department of War Studies at King's College in London, who did not rule out the attack having been carried out by elements of the Shi'ite community becoming increasingly restive with foreign occupation. But neither did he rule out Saddam loyalists, establishing a guerrilla presence in the south.

On the other hand, there was Philip Mitchell, a "military expert" at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. His view was that the attack may have been carried out by smugglers eager to maintain a state of lawlessness that has characterised the Amara area since the end of the war. "I think based on the events of previous weeks, all the reports from that area have been that the locals have been at relative peace with the Brits, with the troops in the area," he told Recknagel. "So my gut reaction is that this is a one-off. Although it seems to indicate some sort of organization and planning, to me, I think, having read some of the reports, it stems more out of local criminal activity than out of anti-Brit, pro-Saddam supporters being involved."

Patrick Cockburn, writing for the Independent on Sunday, disagreed. He noted that, when the six Royal Military Police had entered the ramshackle town of Majar al-Kabir on the edge of the Iraqi marshlands, "they were entering the streets of one of the most dangerous towns in Iraq." Guerrillas had harried Saddam Hussein’s army for decades from hideouts in the reed beds around Majar al-Kabir and later, after their enemy had drained the marshes, from holes dug in the ground.

He also noted, as had many commentators, that the friction over the disarmament progamme may have sparked the incident but he also pointed to "a deeper reason for the animosity." In private, Cockburn wrote, tribesmen say they are convinced the real motive behind the searches is that the US and Britain want to stay a long time in Iraq. He cited just one of the tribesmen, saying: "We are just waiting for our religious leaders to issue a fatwa against the occupation and then we will fight the occupation."

That, to Cockburn, suggested one thing. Far from opposition coming from remnants of Saddam Hussein's forces, Majar al-Kabir showed that the US and Britain faced many dangerous enemies in Iraq who had nothing to do with the surviving supporters of Saddam Hussein.

Nevertheless, in early July the then foreign minister Jack Stray visited Iraq, where he was determinedly upbeat. His "take" was that, while the security situation was better than it was two months ago, there were still elements of the Baath Party and the Fedayeen "operating in a relatively organised way" against coalition forces. He said there had been no request for reinforcements, "although it was understood that the option of sending more troops remains under review."

Yet, only a day later, a British Army spokesman was confirming that one soldier had been injured in a Basra "blast". An Iraqi oil official also confirmed that "subversive elements", had attacked one of the oil pipelines in the Faw Peninsula, in southern Iraq. A fire had broken out on the pipeline. That had been on the Friday, the same day a had sniper shot and wounded in the leg a soldier from 1st Battalion King's Regiment. This had happened on the northern outskirts of Basra when a routine patrol when had come under fire by two gunmen. The assailants fled and the patrol had found five Kalashnikov assault rifles.

Relief agencies were also having troubles. The UN's World Programme was losing trucks to armed hijackers on the road between the Kuwaiti border and Nassiriyah. Food from Kuwait had to be transferred to Iraqi trucks at the port of Umm Qasr. Umm Qasr itself had been affected by looting in mid-June for some days after the withdrawal of Spanish troops. British forces, with the aid of Iraqi guards, had to be brought in to provide security.

It was not only trucks being "hijacked", but people as well. Colonel Ronnie McCourt of the British army in Basra told The Guardian that there had been between 10 and 15 kidnappings in the first two weeks of June. "It is partly for money, partly tribal disputes and sometimes people taking a hostage to swap for one of their own who has been taken," McCourt said. A spate of armed robberies as well as the kidnappings had prompted the UN in Basra to ban its staff from going out after 8pm. They had been prohibited from walking anywhere, and cars had to travel in pairs. There had also been a rise in the number of revenge killings. Colonel Ali Abdullah Najim, the police chief in Basra's central district claimed to have had reports of seven to 10 homicides a week connected with revenge against members of the former regime.

One had to look elsewhere, however, to see the evidence of how the hard men of the Shi'a factions were moving in. This came from the London-based Al-Sharq al-Awsat Arabic newspaper, subsequently translated and posted on the English language wire services. It registered an appeal by the Sunni Waqf Directorate (an Islamic charitable foundation) in Basra over an attack on 16 July by a 40-man force of armed "assailants", who took control of the building and expelled all employees after threatening to kill them. In addition, they stole all the documents and records and moved them to an unknown location. The director, Haqqi Isma'il was appealing to "Islamic governments, religious institutions and academic circles" urging them to intervene.

There was no mystery as to the identity of these assailants as they carried with them a letter from Ali al-Asadi, a representative of the Al-Sadr Office in Basra, demanding that the directorate be handed over to them and claiming that the Saddam Hussien’s regime had taken it away from the Shia.

In making his appeal, Isma'il was seeking to avert the "outbreak of a looming crisis amid total silence on the part of the British troops in control of Basra". The aggressors’ persistence in their attacks, he warned, "might result in a sectarian crisis that could be hard to settle at such a delicate time." He also referred to a previous incident in which groups had broken into five Sunni mosques, expelled worshippers from them and taken control of them. Complaining that the British had refused to intervene, had disregarded all the appeals and had "confined themselves to holding some meetings, which were fruitless."

Whether coincidence or not, the BBC's correspondent in Basra, Hugh Sykes, chose the next day to file a report headed, "Patience runs low in Basra". In it, he retailed the complaints of Basra locals, one of whom was a café owner who had bitter words for George Bush and Tony Blair. "Those men are only thinking of themselves," he said. "Liberation has brought insecurity and crime to Basra - robbers, mugging, kidnappings for ransom. And they can't even provide us with reliable electricity."

This seems to be the time when the British military forces decided on a "crackdown" on violence and disorder. Security roadblocks were being set up all over Basra and in the districts of Safwan, al-Zubayr and in central Basra.

But events elsewhere were to take a hand. In the holy city of Najaf, where Moqtada Sadr was currently in resident, action by US troops led to rumours that Sadr had been arrested. As the rumours spread to Basra, between 2,000 and 3,000 protesters flooded the streets, stoning a car they believed belonged to a British civilian administrator. British troops were forced to intervene, shots were fired and Sadr's representative in Basra, Sheikh Ali al-Assadi, was among the three wounded.

The contrast with what happened next – or did not happen – perhaps offered the best clue as to what was going on. A mere two days after rumours of Sadr’s arrest had sparked protests in the streets of Basra, the media was reporting that Saddam Hussein's sons Uday and Qusay may have been killed in an American raid on a house in northern Iraq. This was subsequently confirmed, but even despite an Arab satellite broadcaster playing what it said was a new tape with a message from Saddam Hussein, ordering his former soldiers to rise up against the American occupation, there was no sign of mass unrest in Basra.

The only recorded incident around that time was an attack on a Czech field hospital in Basra, when three shots fired by unknown men hit the accommodation quarters, slightly injuring one Iraqi patient. The incident was classified as an "occasional shooting", which occurs from time to time in this part of Basra, a Czech spokesman said.

More serious incidents occurred on 27 July. In the centre of Basra, unidentified men attacked a liquor store with RPGs firing two or three rockets, leaving five people wounded and caused substantial damage. A British military base was also attacked. Some parts of the building were destroyed and electricity supply to the district was completely cut off. According to local reports, British troops surrounded wth area with "several patrol vehicles and tanks". Three or four loud explosions were heard from the centre of the city, followed by rounds of gunfire. Some buildings suffered heavy damage and there were civilian casualties.

Of other notable events around the time, one was another incident involving the Czech forces, this time their military police, who got caught in crossfire between two local gangs near the village of al-Uzair, not far from Basra. They were part of a British patrol, which was forced to take refuge in a police station until the arrival of British reinforcements. A day later, four Iraqis were wounded in an attack targeting British forces near Basra. That morning a a bomb had exploded at the Khalij al-Arabi petrol station just over a mile south of Basra on the road to Zubair, seconds after three British military trucks had passed. The blast wounded four Iraqis, and damaged one minibus and one truck. There had been only slight damage to one of the military vehicles.

Another British military vehicle in Basra came under attack on 9 August, again in front of a petrol station, with reports of assailants hurling a grenade at it. The vehicle caught fire, according to Ali Hussein, a taxi driver who had been filling up his car with fuel at the time of the attack. Then, four armoured vehicles and Land Rovers had arrived, only to be stoned by a gathering crowd. Soldiers had fired shots in the air and rubber bullets into the crowd, wounding – it is claimed - at least four Iraqis, including a child. Very quickly, the crowd grew to more than 2,000. Soon they were erecting barricades of burning tyres in the streets and stoning passing cars.

This was the start of two days of rioting, as Iraqis protested against power outages and petrol shortages. In the baking heat reaching 122°F, with no electricity for air conditioners, tempers had snapped. In a bid to restore calm, the military had to deploy Warriors of the King's Regiment to safeguard fuel deliveries. In the thick of the action, which had left at least one Iraqi dead, had been Sheikh Abu Salaam al-Sa’adi, Muqtader al-Sadr's representative in Basra. The military suspected him of orchestrating the trouble, bur conceded that, without water, wages, fuel and power, few people in Basra need much encouragement to turn to violence.

Another casualty of the riots was an ex-Gurkha, who had been working for Global Security, a private security contractor. At the time, he had been in one of two vehicles delivering mail when two or three armed Iraqis had set up a road block in the centre of the city and had signalled to the vehicles to slow down. Both cars had continued driving, shots had been fired and several rounds hit one of the cars, wounding the Gurkha in the shoulder. He died shortly afterwards. An official statement described the incident as a "terrorist attack".

Washington Post correspondent Anthony Shadid forecast that in Barsa, the "worst may be ahead," citing a fishing net salesman Sabah Khairallah: "One month," said the gaunt, unshaven and angry Khairallah. That's how long he gave the British forces occupying Basra to bring electricity, water and fuel. After that, more riots would ensue. "But not with rocks," he said, nodding his head. "With guns."

Leaders from al-Fudhala, described as an influential Shia religious organisation, gave the British less time, warning them that they had a week to sort out the severe electricity and petrol shortages. But they were only talking about more protests. Not so, Sa'id Ali, a young man who gave his opinion unsolicited to The Independent. Echoing Sabah Khairallah’s comment to the Washington Post, he said, "If the situation continues like this we are willing to give up our women and children to be martyrs. We will stop buying petrol and start buying weapons to fight."

Whether directly connected to the general mood of dissatisfaction in Basra, or not, we shall probably never know. But, one day after Sa'id Ali's strident comments had been published, on 14 August, a military ambulance was travelling from Basra, conveying a soldier to the military hospital in the Shaibah logistics base outside the city. It never arrived. Shortly after 9am British time, the vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb hidden next to a lamp post. It killed Captain David Jones, injured two soldiers, and badly damaging the vehicle. The Daily Telegraph reported the incident as "the most serious attack on British forces since the attack on the military police in Majar-al-Kabir." Furthermore, it wrote, as this was the very first roadside bomb attack on a British military vehicle, the fear was that the "honeymoon" with the Shia was over. British troops in were now to be targeted by guerrilla attacks.

More accurately put, it had been the first "successful" – from the point of view of the attackers – roadside bomb attack, in that it had killed a British soldier. Defence analyst Paul Beaver told the BBC that the incident looked like, "a step up in operations by a group you can only call terrorists." Adding, "This is very much a pre-meditated act of terrorism," he feared it could signal a change in the way groups opposed to the ruling US-led coalition operated in the south of the country. The BBC's own correspondent, Mike Donkin, agreed. "There will be real concern now that the tide has turned for the worse in the south," he said. "The Basra area will now be considered a dangerous potential flashpoint." Without doubt, tension was rising. On Sunday, 17 August, a Danish solider was reported killed after his unit had stopped a truck carrying several Iraqis during a routine overnight patrol. This was later reported as a "friendly fire" incident but it was symptomatic of troops on edge.

Almost in passing, it seemed, Ali Hassan al-Majid, one of Saddam Hussein's most brutal henchmen who had earned the nicknames "Chemical Ali" and "butcher of the Kurds" for his poison gas attacks, had been captured. He was number five on the US forces' most-wanted list.

Quickly following that, there was an incident on 23 August when three soldiers from the Royal Military Police - Major Matthew Titchener, Co Sergeant Major Colin Wall and Corporal Dewi Pritchard - were killed in an ambush in central Basra. Another soldier was seriously injured. They had all been riding in a Nissan sports utility vehicle in a routine two-vehicle convoy and had come under small-arms fire from an unknown number of men in a pick-up truck at around 8.30am. The soldiers had returned fire, but appeared to have been killed either by a grenade thrown from the other vehicle or when their own vehicle crashed into a wall. This brought to ten, the number of British soldiers killed in action since the formal cessation of hostilities on 1 May.

The BBC Arabic Service reporter, Issam Alainachi, had been on the scene within ten minutes of the attack, later reporting that it would be "particularly worrying" for the British forces in Basra. They had been trying hard to win over the local people, carrying out patrols on foot, sometimes without body armour and helmets, even though they often risked being stoned by gangs of children. However, said Alainach, they had recently been taking more precautions. He cited Major Ian Poole, British Army spokesman in Basra: "For the last couple of weeks, British soldiers have been wearing body armour on the ground because it felt the potential threat was sufficient to warrant that," he said.

"Everybody's nervous now," said Cpl Warren Salisbury, of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, as he performed security checks on cars in the centre of Basra. He was talking to The Daily Telegraph after the event. "I'm nervous every time I go out. The attackers have upped it now, and we are conducting a lot more operations against them in return." The Telegraph's report went on:

Increasingly edgy soldiers expressed their concerns about the soft-skinned civilian cars, known as "white fleet" vehicles, which have been rented by the Army to make up for a shortfall of "green fleet" armoured Land-Rovers. Though bullets ripped through the unarmoured Nissan driven by the victims of Saturday's attack, a British military spokesman in Basra yesterday said "white fleet" cars would still be used for "essential missions". But soldiers manning the checkpoints around Basra yesterday dismissed the "white fleet" vehicles as "a waste of space". They claimed that the cars were favoured by senior officers only because they have air-conditioning. "Money would be better spent fitting air conditioning to the armoured equipment," one soldier said.
Nevertheless, Lynda Sawyers, a British military spokeswoman, was telling that media that the deaths of yet another three MPs was, "a very unusual and unfortunate incident. We have very good relations with the people of Basra," she said. At British Army headquarters at Basra's airport, we were told, officers were confident that British troops were not yet facing an "established pattern" of attacks.

The Sunday Mirror, that week, was having none of it. It enlisted defence experts to warn that the tragedy could mark the start of a terrorist campaign by Iraqis, particularly in Basra. One of its experts was Major Charles Heyman, previously used by The Times, said: "I'm afraid today's attack was just a matter of time. Over the last two weeks we have seen a good indication of what is to come. Today's deaths were predictable, as is, I'm afraid, a low-level insurgency campaign against the occupying forces in Basra and southern Iraq. There's no way you can get away from it - it is desperate news. Basra has been simmering for some time."

The paper also aired the views of "former officer and defence expert" Michael Yardley. He said: “We were always going to see an extended guerilla and terror campaign against Allied forces. We know that Saddam Hussein planned for this contingency - to bring chaos. It has been suggested that these are random attacks, but they are more than that, although we can't be sure who is responsible – 'holy war' Jihadists, remnants of Saddam Hussein's intelligence or Fedayeen militia."

The main thrust of the Mirror story, however, was a charge that the military policemen had been killed "when they were ambushed in a hired four-wheel-drive", "because the Army doesn't have enough armoured vehicles to go round." They were "sitting ducks" because of a shortage of military Land Rovers. The mens' comrades in an armoured Land Rover on the same patrol, the paper claimed, had escaped unharmed, but could do nothing to prevent the tragedy.

An Army spokesman in Basra confirmed that a number of soft-sided, four-wheel-drive civilian vehicles had been hired locally to "supplement" a shortage of Land Rovers, while Major Ian Poole, also speaking for the Army added, "We are working hard to identify the attackers. We will look seriously at any lessons learned in regards to putting new measures in place."

Whether intended as resassurance or whether it reflected the real thinking of the "brass", Dominic d'Angloe, spokesman for Basra's Coalition Provisional Authority, also added his penn'orth. "We thought things had been calming down in the region. We are all very shocked," he said. This was very much at odds with a report filed by Gary Marx for the Chicago Tribune a few days later, whe he observed: "More than two weeks after deadly riots hit this southern city, residents are simmering with discontent."

The very next day, 27 August, there was another lethal attack on a British soldier. The casualty this time was Fusilier Russell Beeston, a Territorial Army soldier in the 52nd Lowland Regiment.

Beeston's six-vehicle patrol, made up from troops of King's Own Scottish Borderers and the 52nd Lowland Regiment, was returning from an operation in which – it was reported - "two Saddam loyalists" had been arrested in Ali al-Gharbi near the Iranian border, not very far from Majar al-Kabir. The convoy had been on its way back to its base in al Amarah when it had found its way blocked by vehicles driven across the carriageway by Iraqis determined to release the captives. The convoy diverted through the village of Ali al-Sharqi, but again the Iraqis anticipated their arrival. Near the village they encountered an angry crowd.

Fusilier Beeston was ordered to dismount from his Land Rover, the aim being to walk the convoy through the crowd by acting as armed escorts. But, as soon as the riflemen left their vehicles a second group of Iraqis emerged to seal the road behind them. With hostile men to their front and rear, the dismounted soldiers fired two volleys into the air. The show of force was intended as a warning, but Iraqis responded with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Fusilier Beeston was hit in the chest by rifle bullets. He was treated at the scene but died from his injuries while his unit was still under fire. Helicopters and rapid reaction troops were called to the scene to help the patrol extract.

Fusilier Beeston was the 50th British soldier to die since the start of the Iraqi invasion (the 21st to be killed in combat), yet it looked as if a spokesman for the King's Own Scottish Borderers was seeking to make light of the affair. It was the first attack on British forces in that area of Maysan province, he said, "There is no indication that this attack was deliberately targeted". Instead, according to this spokesman, "it came as the result of a crowd who, we suspect, were orchestrated into expressing their anger at the arrest of a well-known local figure." Another army spokesman, however, said it appeared the convoy had been lured into an ambush by the use of a roadblock which diverted them into the town.

The Scotsman was in no doubt. Its headline declared, "British troops are prime target in Iraq," its story noting how a "… premeditated attack on British troops in Iraq … reinforced the impression that they are now being regarded as viable targets by Iraqi opposition fighters." The attack, it wrote, "suggested that the low key British tactics that have proved relatively successful are no guarantee of long-term success." The Guardian was of a similar mind, reporting:

It is increasingly apparent that the British military's "softly, softly" approach and its attempt to strike up a relationship with local communities is having less impact. Although the south is dominated by Shias, who had most to celebrate from Saddam Hussein's fall, anger at power shortages, high crime levels and the slow evolution of an Iraqi government is triggering riots and increasingly violent attacks.
Two days after Fusilier Beeston had been killed, an explosion "rocked" a British military base in Basra. The MoD said the blast had happened within 300 metres of the British base. No casualties were reported. Within the week, prime minister Tony Blair was giving a "cautious response to a call for 5,000 extra British troops" as news emerged that France and Germany had delivered a “cool response” to a draft resolution sponsored by the United States, which aimed to create a United Nations an international force in Iraq.

Admitting that the situation in Iraq had deteriorated in recent weeks and was "serious", his defence secretary Geoff Hoon had already ordered a review of British troop levels. By the week end, a 120-strong company of the 2nd Battalion, the Light Infantry, was under orders to fly out from Cyprus to spearhead a new deployment, join the force of 11,000 in southern Iraq. Geoff Hoon was expected to announce that about 1,200 soldiers were to be sent and "defence sources" were saying that another 1,800 would be put on standby to join the mission.

The decision was made on the day a British bomb disposal specialist was killed near Mosul. Ian Rimell, a 53-year-old father of three children, from Kidderminster in Worcestershire, died and his local bodyguard was injured when they were ambushed on the road to Baghdad. His widow, Jennifer Rimell, said she was angry at the way her husband had died in that "he was not a soldier and was in Iraq to help the people."

Almost unreported, that weekend, the main headquarters of the Shiite Islamic Al-Dawa party in Basra had been targeted. Two men armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles opened fire from a car at 8:00 am in the morning, before coming back three hours later and firing again. After the attack, a dozen armed party activists set up a roadblock near the Iraqi police, in full view of British soldiers aboard a military vehicle positioned in the area.

Overnight, on 10/11 September, 3000 miles away, light sleepers in Belfast and the occasional motorist were startled by the sight of convoys of military vehicles being driven through the night, towards the docks. The "Snatch" Land Rovers were on their way to war, an event curiously unrecorded by the media, except for the local BBC bureau. It found an Army spokesman to say that the Land Rovers, all drawn from reserve stock or currently surplus to requirement in Northern Ireland, would give much-needed and potentially life-saving protection to army patrols in southern Iraq. "We are very pleased to be able to help our colleagues serving in Iraq," the spokesman said.