The road into Basra, capital of southern Iraq… Britain has handed control of security in the city to Iraqi forces… The Iraqi and British governments are talking up a return to normality– markets, road works, even celebrations…
But many people who live here tell a different story – or a city ruled by brutal militias, battling for power. Almost all our interviewees asked for their identities to be hidden.
"Many who are outside Basra, or in Baghdad, or in areas far from Basra, think that Basra is a safe, relaxed city where people can live a decent normal life… but the reality is that in Basra, there are mafias, which steel and rob… and they all, of course, wouldn’t like a journalist to uncover their activities, be it in the eyes of Iraqis or worldwide…and that is why they threaten journalists, and forbid them from portraying a true picture of what is happening of the streets of Basra."
"When we joined the profession of journalism, we knew that it was the profession of looking for trouble. So if we face a problem or a threat or two, we can’t just leave journalism and close in on ourselves."
"There is a lot of concern being made in foreign and particularly British press, over the withdrawal of British Forces completely from Basra, and that Basra will descend into a mess of gangs and militias… but Basra is right now in control of militias and gangs, while the Brits are still here!!!"
This is a journey into Basra, to hear voices that are rarely if ever heard.
THE BODYGUARD’S MOTHER
Umm Sami is 52. Her husband was executed by Saddam Hussein 26 years ago, and she now lives with her disabled mother in the squalor of their home.
"We lost everything because of the wars, had to keep moving around, from one place to another. I keep having to pack up and move."
Her elder son works as a guard for Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki. And in Iraq today, that was enough one night for masked men to burst into their home and beat his younger brother so badly he hasn’t been able to walk since.
"What did they gain from doing this to him? They’ve ruined his life and his family. For what? He can’t go to the doctor, or support his children…When the British forces were around they would patrol the streets and kept us safe. Now anyone can barge in, take your son, without fearing anybody, or any government. If you complain the government do nothing."
Anyone who had anything to do with British forces is particularly at risk.
THE FORMER BRITISH ARMY COOK
"Things got worse when the British left. Assassinations that started with the religious clerics. Then the gangs started fighting. Basra used to be the safest place in Iraq."
Hassan, nervously smoking here, used to cook for the British, but stopped this August after threats from a militia. His brother, a translator, didn’t.
"For a week we didn’t know where he was. Then the Brits said he hadn’t shown up to work for a week. We looked for him. His body was dumped on the road. He had a piece of paper on him saying he was a traitor as he worked for British forces. It was stuck to his chest. He’d been shot 5 times."
We spoke to a former translator who says he’s just waiting for his turn.
THE FORMER INTERPRETER
He heard about the British government’s promise of 500 visas for former British army employees… but he says nothing has happened in practice.
"The militias consider the allied forces an occupying force, and anyone who works with them is a traitor and deserves to die – there is no discussion about this, whether you are a translator or a cleaner… Let me be honest with you – I will fall into their hands, its only a matter of time. if I don’t leave Iraq, I’m a dead man. They will find me. I heard this news, and it made me very happy – it brought hope for a new life and future… we thought the brits have finally started to look after us, just like we looked after them when they were with us… But in practice, on the ground, this law isn’t being implemented yet. We are asking then when they are planning to implement the law – they say we should wait a while, get our papers ready, apply, and then they need to study the cases, and eventually decide whether to accept or reject… I think it would take at least 3 months… but since I am already a dead man, I will wait another 3 months… but is there any hope? I don’t think so… I have no more hope."
Iraqi police and soldiers now patrol the streets of Basra. But the militias are the real power, heavily armed and spreading a quiet terror. We gained access to a top commander of the Mahdi Army – the Shia militia that is the most powerful force in Basra…
THE MAHDI ARMY MAHDI ARMY COMMANDER
"Basra cannot be ruled by force. There are too many entities fighting for power. Even the British didn’t manage to control Basra by force so they fled in fear to their base at the airport. Basra needs a vision."
His group, he claims, is almost an alternative government, offering protection and order. He mocks official corruption.
"The first people to combat smuggling were the men of Basra, not the government. They took charge after the fall of Saddam when there was no government. Then when the government took over, smuggling increased. It’s bizarre! What a mystery! If they think this popular movement is finished, then they are in denial… this popular movement of the people is hibernating now – when it feels there is danger, it will awaken from its deep sleep… it is a common tactic, all over the world… when an entity feels threatened, it goes underground, and it reappears when the right time comes… The guy running the security plan now – Mohan – only believes in power. He wants to cleanse all Iraqi homes of weapons. But the Americans elsewhere in Iraq are arming Sunni tribes. And in Basra, police are trying to take arms away from Shia tribes. Let them dream on!"
As the militias battle it out for Basra, one group has already lost and fled. Basra is largely a Shia Muslim city, and the Shia militias have driven out almost all the Sunni Muslim minority.
We followed the refugees 1,100 kilometres to the northwest, to Damascus in Syria.
THE SUNNI COMPUTER ENGINEER
"One of my relatives, a teacher, was killed right in the middle of Basra, in the city centre, where it’s supposed to be the safest area. The killer, carrying his pistol, walked away after shooting him and everybody left him alone! He got in his car and drove off. And my relative was left on the street bleeding. That’s the sort of thing that was happening – until today, we’ve never seen anyone who committed a murder caught – not one! So they started distributing flyers, that’s how it all started. The flyers were in the streets. They said: ‘for all Sunni residents of Basra… leave Basra or we will kill you’. So people started to get out – they felt vulnerable, unprotected. Neither the government, nor the army, nor the police, nor the occupation forces were protecting the citizens – so what choice did we have?"
These expulsions threaten more violence in future. Abu Majed, an ex-general in the Iraqi Army, fought in the Iran-Iraq war. He is itching to get back to Basra – with a gun in his hand to fight the Shia militia.
THE EX-IRAQI ARMY GENERAL
"People now long for the days of Saddam – Saddam had protected our dignity… at least we had security. I could get in my car and drive to Baghdad from Basra, even at night on my own, and it was fine. Now it’s impossible. Today in Basra, it’s a struggle to stay alive. Everyone is scared – every the murderers will eventually get killed, as the militias carry on fighting among themselves. And anyone who speaks up will get killed. I am ready to fight. I can fight a thousand men, even though I’m over 50 years old. And this isn’t only my opinion – my former colleagues and many others feel the same… Living in exile is hard – even if the country we live in is treating us well, we feel alienated… and we always long for our country."
The British government may say that it has handed Basra to Iraqi forces capable of controlling its security. The reality on the ground, though, is violence and fear.