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British Patrols Walking Tall in Basra

Soldiers have established solid relationships based more on services than security in a city whose residents have no love for the former regime.

October 23, 2003|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

BASRA, Iraq — On a morning foot patrol through two suburban neighborhoods of this southern Iraqi city, British soldiers of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment battled to get a grip on the day's gut issues.

First, there were worries about shortages of cooking kerosene and medicine for a sick child. Then came complaints about trash removal, clogged drains and an after-dark crime wave.

During the three-hour walk last week that included talks with residents, endless chatter with children in the streets and a 40-minute visit over cool orange sodas in the home of a worried father, patrol leader Sgt. John Battersby of Burma Company, from the regiment's 1st Battalion, carefully noted the concerns and promised to pass them on to superiors.

Although heavily armed American soldiers in central Iraq continue to fight a tenacious insurgency more than six months after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, southern Iraq is relatively calm.

Battersby's men here in the nation's second-largest city wear soft berets and patrol neighborhoods at a leisurely pace, enjoying a level of contact and trust with residents that still eludes many U.S. units in and around Baghdad.

"If people saw us running around in helmets and body armor, they'd wonder what's going on," said the company's operations officer, Capt. John Harker.

There is still resistance in Basra. In August, three British military policemen were shot to death as they drove through the city, one more was killed after being lured into an ambush and a fifth -- an officer with the Queen's Lancashire -- died when a remote-controlled bomb blew up his vehicle. In the time it took Battersby's patrol to complete its morning route, a series of explosions slightly wounded four British soldiers elsewhere in Basra, shattering a calm that had lasted several weeks.

But unlike the areas west and north of Baghdad -- heavily populated by minority Sunni Muslims, who dominated Iraq under Hussein -- there is little public sympathy for the resistance here. Many of the city's residents are Shiite Muslims, who suffered under the former regime and say they are grateful that U.S. and British troops chased Hussein from power.

"We don't say 'leave,' we say 'thank you,' " said Wael Abdulatif, governor of Basra province.

Abdulatif and other locals say they are convinced that much of the armed opposition is fueled by foreign provocateurs from Iran who sneak across Iraq's long, largely unguarded border. British military sources, on the other hand, suspect that loyalists of Hussein's Baath Party are driving most of the unrest.

But most agree security is improving.

"When we first came last June, there was constant gunfire when we went out," Harker said. "Now if we're out for three hours, we're lucky if we hear three bursts."

One reason for the progress: Burma Company has helped train new Iraqi police recruits, boosting the number of uniformed law officers in its area of responsibility to 920 from 60 since June. The first members of a paramilitary police support unit trained in riot control, house searches and hostage situations also began operating with the battalion this month.

Although the Iraqi police force's numbers are still small for a densely packed zone of 750,000 people, its growing strength is building confidence among both police officers and residents.

In the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Al-Jamiat, west of central Basra, the most worrisome security problem is criminal gangs engaging in mugging, carjacking and kidnapping.

"I feel threatened here at night," said Basim Jabar Durrani, a father of two who owns a gated corner house in the neighborhood.

Another Basra resident, 18-year-old Mohammed Tofeek, said carjacking had become so bad that his mother wanted to renege on his father's promise to buy him an automobile as a reward for completing high school.

To counter the crime wave, Harker said, Burma Company has formalized a neighborhood watch program in its area, issuing identification cards, jackets, whistles and flashlights to members. Program participants also have the right to carry weapons, but only within the neighborhood.

"It instills community spirit," Harker said. "Someone blows a whistle, and everyone comes running."

In a city where the majority of working-age residents are unemployed, the program also gives meaning and a bit of dignity to life.

Although sharply diminished, looting still remains a major problem as gangs pull down power lines to salvage and sell the metals they contain. Amid the pools of open sewage and piles of debris that fill the streets of the Al Hayanyah slum, bits of power line insulation stripped to reach the valuable metal add to the clutter.

British military officials said looters lasso the power lines with ropes tied to trucks and drag the lines down, or else put a blowtorch to the supporting pylons.

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