Outside Baghdad, Oases of Calm

Times Staff Writer

The main Baghdad offices of U.S. administrators in Iraq are on the grounds of one of the largest of Saddam Hussein’s palace complexes. The compound is the size of a small city and has the feel of a place under siege. Sandbagged machine-gun emplacements and razor wire ring the perimeter walls. From the outside, one can’t even see most of the buildings where the country’s new rulers sit, and no one is allowed inside without an invitation.

The counterpart headquarters for the British administrators in Basra who run Iraq’s four southern provinces are in a three-story, pale-yellow brick building on an anonymous side street. The building’s entrance is a dozen steps from the exterior gate, which is protected by a pair of Iraqi guards.

Throughout the city, despite the presence of foreign troops, the security people one sees most often here wear the blue-and-blue of the new Iraqi police.


The British are determined to hand off much of the work of protecting Iraq to Iraqis. That they have actually begun doing it is one measure of the distance today between the southern and central portions of the country.

Down south, where Shiite Muslims oppressed under Hussein’s government make up the majority of the population, there is no curfew. Teenage boys sit on street corners teasing and killing time until all hours of the morning. In the daytime, the markets are full, and at night the restaurants and cafes are open again. The populace has been told to expect electricity 24 hours a day soon, although judging from current performance, that seems an optimistic estimate.

Basra is not Disneyland. There are shredded buildings, piles of rubble and plenty of other reminders throughout the city that this was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the recent war. And while street-sweeping crews in blue jumpsuits are busy throughout the city, they seem remarkably able to sweep up the dust and leave mounds of trash untouched.

The postwar looting here was as rampant as that in Baghdad, and in a Human Rights Watch report, the British were heavily criticized for failing to provide sufficient security in the first weeks after Hussein’s fall. Shops were emptied. Hospitals, schools and even scientific labs were stripped of everything, including materials of little conceivable use to anyone. Crime -- Iraqi against Iraqi -- remains persistent and is proving difficult to combat.

Given all that, it is nonetheless evident that the British-administered southland is much farther along the road to recovery than is Baghdad and its hinterlands. The lessons learned here could prove valuable to the Americans to the north.

“It’s easy to say things work here because we’re here, but it’s more than that,” said Ian Pickard, spokesman for the southern office of the Coalition Provisional Authority. “This is the Shia south. These people have been mistrusted, repressed and suppressed for decades. If there was anyone glad to see the backside of Saddam Hussein, it was them. From Day One, it was a different environment here. That underlies everything.”


Those differences are starkest in the interactions between soldiers and Iraqis in both theaters. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the U.S. commander of ground forces in Iraq, repeatedly tells whoever will listen that his troops are still at war. In central Iraq, there is no reason to doubt that assessment. American troops patrol the cities in armored vehicles and Humvees bristling with weapons. They have conducted a series of aggressive sweeps through towns and rural areas in the Sunni Muslim heartland around Baghdad.

The sweeps have yielded hundreds of weapons and arrests but have created enormous local hostility. U.S. commanders concede that the sweeps might have provoked some of the almost daily attacks against them.

Those attacks have claimed 35 American lives since President Bush declared major combat over May 1.

In contrast, there has been barely any violence directed against the British troops apart from a single incident in which six British military police officers were killed near Amarah last month. In Basra itself, there has been only a single British casualty of any kind -- an infantryman shot in the leg while on patrol.

The patrols are significantly different as well. The British patrol on foot in squads of six to eight soldiers. They are well armed but carry their weapons almost casually. They are greeted with a constant string of “hello misters” and smiles. The biggest problem they face appears to be negotiating the vast pool of Iraqi children that gathers about them.

They stop and chat with the children and anyone else who approaches. Each patrol has an interpreter along, and commanders say they receive a constant flow of information volunteered to the troops. That information is the basis for the only sort of raids the British do -- those based on specific information about specific individuals engaged in anti-coalition or criminal activity. There are none of the broad sweeps the Americans perform.

“Operations only take place when we have that information,” said Maj. Charlie Mayo.

The sorties nonetheless are clearly military operations. On one recent patrol through old Basra’s central market area, soldiers confiscated half a dozen AK-47 bayonets from a street vendor. He protested vociferously, calling the soldiers “Ali Babas,” local slang for thieves, but to no avail. The knives were seized, and Pvt. Steven Wilkinson warned him that he should consider himself lucky not to be arrested.

What was most notable about the incident was how little reaction it drew from anyone else in the crowded market. In Baghdad under similar circumstances, U.S. troops have been surrounded by threatening crowds.

The biggest danger to British troops is getting caught between warring local groups, of which there are many.

Although the south is often regarded as a Shiite monolith, it is anything but. Because of its access to the sea and the proximity of the Iranian border just minutes to the east, and the Kuwaiti and Saudi borders not that much farther to the south, this region has long been a commercial crossroads and it has the sort of population diversity that often accumulates in such places.

Shiites are the large majority, but they are riven by tribal factions and ancient feuds. There are least 130 tribes, and many pay no attention to any authority but their own.

“This is the real problem, the tribal problem,” said Col. Ali Abdallah Najam, commander of the central Basra police station. “If the police is doing his job chasing a looter or a carjacker and the criminal is affiliated with a tribe, as soon as we arrest him, the chiefs come and threaten us.”

Najam said he was contemplating what he regarded as the most serious action he could take against renegade tribes. “We’ll have to arrest the chiefs,” he said. “Start from the head. Immediately without negotiation.”

Pickard, the Coalition Provisional Authority officer, said there might be less provocative means of dealing with such issues.

Everybody in the region -- as in the rest of Iraq -- is dependent on the occupying authority’s effort to restore basic services such as power, water and sewers. Most of this work has been contracted to large American companies, the largest being Bechtel Group Inc.

Pickard suggested using this reliance as a bargaining tool.

“We’ll punish those who support it,” he said of the tribal rebelliousness. “We’ll say to Mr. Bechtel, that’s a bad tribe. They get no fresh water.”

With such basic issues yet to be worked out, it seems safe to say that the normalization of southern Iraq, though progressing, is closer to the beginning than to the end of the process. Especially at night, Basra echoes with small-arms fire.

But unlike in Baghdad, when coalition troops arrive, the shooting stops. What matters most -- and has yet to be resolved -- is what happens when they leave.