179 British troops were killed in Iraq – was it worth it?

Ten years after the invasion BBC reporter Hugh Sykes returns to Basra to inspect the efforts the city is making to rebuild and recover

The southern Iraqi city of Basra was once known as the Venice of the East. It was a city of canals and elegant waterfront houses with ornate enclosed wooden balconies called shanasheel. Some of the old houses are still there, but many of the balconies are collapsing. The canals are still there, but most are stagnant and full of putrid rubbish.

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Numerous Basra neighbourhoods are foul – many of them worse than they were when I was first there in April 2003. There is stinking rubbish everywhere and pools of sewage. I visited a family in a suburb: they live across the road from a wide lake that smells of fresh human waste. Their daughter started weeping while she was talking to me. Between sobs she said, “No one cares about us.”

I sent photographs of some of those scenes to a British Army captain I’d met in Basra in 2004. He emailed me back: “Your pictures suggest ‘For what?’ and unlike some 179 others I’m still alive to reflect on that.” 179 British troops died in Iraq – most of them in and around Basra – between 2003 and 2009, when UK forces left.

The British base at Basra airport had streets named after places on the Monopoly board: Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, and Go-To-Jail Square. There was a pub with a dart board, cans of Heineken, Beck’s and John Smith’s – and a two-can limit. Those cheerful reminders of home struggled to compete with the gloom cast by incessant attacks on the airport and on other British bases inside the city.

There were roadside bombs, snipers, rockets, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades that sometimes penetrated the armour of inadequately protected Land Rovers.

One British camp was at the former Shatt-al-Arab Hotel. Many of the windows were broken, the bathrooms were dusty and derelict and had no running water. There were portable toilets and showers with printed instructions to “ship shower” – quick wet, switch water off, soap down, quick rinse. There was BBC News 24 on a large communal TV, and some jocular graffiti nearby: “If you see an ATO running, try to keep up with him.” An ATO is a bomb-disposal expert.

I was told, “If there’s a mortar attack, head for hard cover.” Mortars don’t penetrate solid roofs.

Walking round Basra city centre with me, a British intelligence officer revealed: “The going rate for mortaring a British base is $100. For someone living on $2 a week, it’s a no-brainer.” At a cafe in the central market, decorated with posters of the cleric and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr, several customers complained to me that the British presence was simply “occupation”.

Others welcomed the UK forces. At a mobile vehicle checkpoint I asked drivers if they objected to being stopped by British soldiers. Nine out of the ten in my sample said no – and one advised, “They should do more.” The tenth swore at me in fruity Anglo-Saxon and accelerated away.

Another day, in a hubble-bubble café, I was sitting with two men playing dominoes. One showed me a photograph of David Beckham. “Ah,” I said, “so you like Manchester United!” “No, no,” a little boy called Moataz piped up, “Real Madrid.” Beckham had signed for Real only two days earlier. Iraq is football crazy.

During this happy exchange, I noticed the café owner Farid scowling at me. I went over to talk to him. “British no good.” “Why?” I asked. “They are not tough enough with the militias.”

Eventually, so many Iraqi civilians were killed in ferocious battles with the militias – and so many British, too – that the bases in the city were abandoned or handed over to the Iraqis. British forces withdrew to their airport compound eight miles away and in 2009 they went home. The militias were finally suppressed in the Iraqi operation Charge of the Knights, with air cover from American helicopters.

On a visit to Basra earlier this year, an engineer who refurbishes equipment for the oil industry told me that he believes the occupation could have been a success if the UK had committed to large-scale civil reconstruction instead of just military occupation. He thinks this could have provided jobs for the hundreds of unemployed young men in the city who were seduced instead by money from the militias.

The British forces in Basra did include some engineers. They showed me a fishmarket they were renovating. It was presented to me as a major redevelopment. But I wasn’t able to assess how significant it was because the entire visit lasted 12 minutes. The Land Rover I was in was pelted with stones as we left.

Back in Basra in 2009, I asked everyone I met where I could find the fishmarket the British had reconstructed. No one knew what I was talking about. It does exist – in the Hayaniya district, but it is very small.

In impoverished Sadr City near Baghdad, where more than a million people live, I spent several days with a US engineering battalion. They put major projects out to tender to Iraqi contractors. They constructed a new main drain, which rid many neighbourhoods of standing sewage, and they installed reverse-osmosis water treatment units in schools – an inspired scheme that allows children to take clean drinking water home at the end of each day. The battalion commander was an irrepressibly optimistic soldier who signed all his emails, “Big Smiles”. His unit was not attacked once.

In Algeria Street in Basra, there are pleasant shops selling sweets and dates (“Basra dates are Basra Viagra,” I heard), and several good restaurants around the city, some of them on brightly lit boats moored off the Corniche. The city is teeming with new cars, and flyovers are being constructed over busy road junctions. But many of the roads are dreadful – and pitted with potholes and ruts after recent heavy rain.

Basra’s new governor Khalaf Abdul-Samad acknowledges the sacrifices made by the multinational forces as they rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein, and he says the greatest foe now is centralised Iraqi bureaucracy, which makes budget approval by the ministries in Baghdad painfully slow. Khalaf believes the only solution to his city’s chronic problems is full regional status for Basra – not semi-autonomy like Iraqi Kurdistan, but local control of everything apart from defence and foreign affairs. And, with an event that hints at squandered British opportunities in Basra, he recently held a fund-raising dinner for the USBCI, the United States Business Council in Iraq.

The United States has a consulate in Basra. The British consulate in the city was closed last year, and replaced by an “office”, with no permanent staff. The Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt told Today that a “beefed-up” presence in Baghdad would be “better for Britain”. But arguably not better for Basra.


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Hugh Sykes presents After Saddam on Sunday at 1:30pm on Radio 4