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The men in black vanish and Basra comes to life

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A month ago, any woman daring to wear bright clothing in Basra would have drawn the wrath of the militiamen.

Young women are daring to wear jeans, soldiers listen to pop music on their mobile phones and bands are performing at wedding parties again.

All across Iraq’s second city life is improving, a month after Iraqi troops began a surprise crackdown on the black-clad gangs who were allowed to flourish under the British military. The gunmen’s reign had enforced a strict set of religious codes.

Yet after three years of being terrified of kidnap, rape and murder – a fate that befell scores of other women – Nadyia Ahmed, 22, is among those enjoying a sense of normality, happy for the first time to attend her science course at Basra University.

“I now have the university life that I heard of at high school before the war and always dreamt about,” she told The Times.

“It was a nightmare because of these militiamen. I only attended class three days a week but now I look forward to going every day.”

She also no longer has to wear a headscarf. Under the strict Islamic rules imposed by the militias, women had to cover their hair, could not wear jeans or bright clothes and were strictly forbidden from sitting next to male colleagues on pain of death.

“All these men in black [who imposed the laws] just vanished from the university after this operation,” said Ms Ahmed. “Things have completely changed over the past week.”

In a sign of the good mood, celebratory gunfire erupted around Basra two nights ago and text messages were pinged from one mobile phone to another after an alleged senior militia leader was arrested.

Raids are continuing in a few remaining strongholds but the Iraqi commander in charge of the unprecedented operation is confident that his forces will soon achieve something that the British military could not – a city free from rogue gunmen.

British and US officials acknowledge tentatively that a turning point has been reached. Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the British Army, made an unannounced visit to Basra over the weekend.

Local people are daring to hope that the dark days of death squads and kidnap are over, displaying the sort of optimism that was last seen when British forces arrived in 2003 with the false promise of a better life free from Saddam Hussein.

Driving through Basra in a convoy with the Iraqi general leading the Charge of the Knights operation, The Times passed Iraqi security forces manning checkpoints and patrolling the roads. Not a hostile shot was fired as the convoy turned into what was until the weekend the most notorious neighbourhood in the city. Hayaniya, a teeming slum, was a bastion for al-Mahdi Army, the main militia.

For the first time in four years local residents have been emboldened to stand up to the militants and are turning in caches of weapons. Army checkpoints have been erected across Basra and traffic police are also out in force.

The security forces have also torn down many banners supporting al-Mahdi Army as well as portraits of its leader, Moqtada al-Sadr, though some still remain in militia strongholds.

The contrast could not be more stark with the last time The Times visited Basra in December, when intimidation was rife.

Many blame the British for allowing the militias to grow. “If they sent competent Iraqi troops to Basra in the early stages it would have limited the damage that happened in our city,” said Hameed Hashim, 39, who works for the South Oil Company.

Lieutenant-General Mohan al-Furaiji, Basra’s outgoing commander, said that his goal was “to turn Basra into a safe city without any armed groups” within two months. Local authorities would then have to improve the standard of living for the people of Basra, a city of 2.5 million, where raw sewage runs down the streets and the unemployment rate is as high as 80 per cent, despite countless projects funded by the British Government.

“The army has achieved security . . . but people can’t just live with peace. This is a miserable city by all measures,” said General Furaiji, speaking at the Basra Operations Centre on the bank of the Shatt al-Arab waterway.

“We have given nothing to the people. Peace is vital but people can’t eat or drink peace,” he toldThe Times. Despite being an Iraqi-led operation, British and American soldiers are also embedded at the Shatt al-Arab Hotel, providing advice and expertise. Hundreds of British and American troops are on the ground alongside the Iraqis and coalition aircraft fly overhead.

Keen to demonstrate the new-found security, General Furaiji stopped his Humvee on the main street of largely boarded-up stores in Hayaniyah and ducked into a dilapidated coffee shop for a glass of Iraqi tea and a bread roll.

A cluster of young men ventured forward to speak to him, voicing concern about finding work rather than security fears. Ahmed Nassir Kassim, 23, said: “Before there were killings. Now it’s better. I would like the Government to look after the people and provide us with jobs.”

The neighbouring district of al-Qibla was similarly calm. Hussein Fadhil, a professional musician, runs a shop in the centre of the city that rents out musical instruments and has seven bands that he hires for weddings.

Musicians suffered greatly. Many were forced by the militia to abandon their trade or beaten up if they tried to perform. Weddings were affected, with couples being told not to play music.

“Just two weeks ago if you passed a wedding party you would not be able to tell whether it was a wake or a wedding,” Mr Fadhil, 44, said.

The tide has turned, however. Eleven band members who quit because of intimidation want their old jobs back and are receiving bookings for at least one party a day.

In a new sweep that began yesterday, seven Iraqi battalions entered a market area – one of three remaining militia bastions – where they found four large hauls of munitions.

In the past month Iraqi troops have killed dozens of fighters, made 400 arrests and lost 12 soldiers. At the same time, it is thought that about 60 militia leaders have escaped across the border into Iran or are lying low outside Basra, working out their next move.

The British military expressed cautious optimism at the progress. Major Tom Holloway, a spokesman, said:

“The Iraqi security forces have made a real difference; this is going to be a long operation by its nature. However, rule of law is returning to the streets.”

Additional reporting by Ali Hamdani

Created by anita
Last modified 2008-04-29 06:01 AM

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