The men in black vanish and Basra comes to life
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
“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
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
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.
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
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
Many blame the British for allowing the militias to grow. “If they sent
competent Iraqi troops to
Lieutenant-General Mohan al-Furaiji,
“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
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
Last modified 2008-04-29 06:01 AM