Iraq’s south, once safe, is now fraught with peril for troops
Gethin Chamberlain, in Basra, for The Scotsman, 20 April 2004.
“ALI Baba,” said the man standing at the checkpoint, drawing his finger across his throat and gesturing to the road ahead. “Ali Baba,” he said, his arms stretched out towards the soldiers imploringly. In Iraq, “Ali Baba” means thieves. His car had been shot up just a short distance from the police positions and he was in fear for his life.
The soldiers had slowed down to weave through an Iraqi police checkpoint about half- way between the eastern town of al Amarah, close to the Iranian border, and Basra, Iraq’s second city, when they saw the man waving and shouting for them to stop. His colleague, too, was shouting and beckoning for the two Land Rovers to stop. There was something so insistent, so desperate about their cries that Lieutenant-Colonel Jonny Gray, the senior officer in the first vehicle, told his driver to pull up.
Col Gray, the commanding officer of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was on his way south from al Amarah back to the battalion headquarters in one of Saddam Hussein’s old palaces on the banks of the Shatt al Arab waterway in Basra.
He and his men were making a dash for their own base after a dramatic 24 hours in al Amarah. Until a couple of hours earlier, the roads had been off -limits to British military traffic after an intense firefight in the town the previous afternoon, when British troops, including Col Gray and the men with him now, had been pinned down for an hour and a half by supporters of the young cleric Muqtada al Sadr, firing rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons.
Overnight, a couple of rockets had landed in the camp, but as negotiations with Sadr’s people continued, an uneasy peace had settled. Col Gray needed to be back in Basra, where most of his men were based, and had seized the chance to get out.
Gathering his men around him, he outlined his intentions and his instructions for the trip south towards Iraq’s second city along Route 6, the main road from Baghdad.
Plundered by hijackers who pull people from their cars at gun- or knife-point and make off with the vehicles, sometimes shooting or stabbing the owners, it is a dangerous road at the best of times – and this was not the best of times.
The first town along the route, Majar al Kabir, where six British military policemen were cornered and killed last year, had been taken over by Sadr’s Mahdi army, Col Gray said.
The first police checkpoint they would encounter was near the town. If there were no police there, or they came under contact from militia forces, they would turn their vehicles round and return to al Amarah to sit it out until the roads were declared safe.
If they got through the first checkpoint, he told them, they would plunge on, come what may. They were to drive through any further contacts with the enemy and if a vehicle was hit or disabled, they were to extract themselves in normal fashion, each covering the other as they alternately fired and moved until they were clear of the killing zone, the term used to describe the area around an ambush covered by the weapons of the attackers.
They would not be clear of serious risk until they entered Basra, Col Gray pointed out, because the last obvious danger point lay just before the bridge north of the city which had been a regular site of attacks on British troops in recent weeks. It appealed to the militia because traffic was obliged to use the bridge to enter the city. Again, Col Gray spelled it out: if they were contacted, they would fire, manoeuvre and extract themselves from the area. But they would not be turning back.
Col Gray’s detailed instructions on how they would evade attack give a clear insight into the dangers that the British military, and Iraqi civilians, now face just travelling around Iraq, dangers emphasised by the events of the previous day.
Although most of the world’s attention has been focused on what has been going on in the American-controlled areas, particularly around Baghdad and Fallujah, the situation in southern Iraq has gradually deteriorated, with militia forces becoming better organised and more confident.
Privately, British officers concede that their problems lie in the American handling of the situation in their areas. If the Maysan province, which contains al Amarah, Majar and Basra, were an autonomous entity, they believe they would have little difficulty in containing the trouble. But the national picture is having an adverse effect on everyone.
Where once it was safe for troops to drive along the road to Majar in a civilian vehicle, they now move only in groups, with soldiers standing up in the back of the vehicles covering the ground on all sides with their weapons. Robbery and hijackings on the roads in the south remain a real problem, despite the best efforts of the well-drilled Iraqi Civil Defence Corps (ICDC) and the Iraqi police.
In the camp in Basra, the eight men making the trip checked their weapons, put on their body armour and helmets and clambered into the two armoured Land Rovers, two soldiers taking up top cover duties in the back of each, their heads and upper bodies poking through the hatch cut out of the roof, standing up on the seats and the spare wheel stored on the floor of the vehicles, rifles at the ready.
The land either side of the road south is flat, with a few trees breaking up the skyline. Every now and again there is a factory, belching thick, black smoke into the air from its soot-caked chimney. Crops grow and there were people working on the land as the soldiers sped past, the drivers sticking to the lane nearest the centre of the road to reduce the risk of being caught in an explosion from a device hidden by the roadside.
Despite the dangers, there were plenty of vehicles to keep them company; lorries and tankers and the ubiquitous orange and white taxis and white pick -up trucks.
“It doesn’t help when every second vehicle is a white pick-up,” said Captain Justin Barry, the adjutant, sitting in the front passenger seat of the rear vehicle.
Approaching the Majar checkpoint, they slowed down, but the police were there, a police car parked on the road a few hundred yards before the chicane set up to slow down traffic passing through and an officer standing in the field a little way away on the left hand side of the road. The Argylls accelerated away again, Capt Barry’s Land Rover spluttering and misfiring but eventually picking up speed.
The grassy countryside gave way to sandy, open ground where telegraph poles were the highest feature in the landscape. They drove on and then, about halfway to Basra, there were the two men, standing next to a police checkpoint, waving at them frantically.
Slowing as they passed, the soldiers watched the two men, trying to make up their minds. Finally, Col Gray ordered them to a stop.
The men seemed frantic. The first, neatly dressed in smart white shirt and dark trousers, was struggling to overcome the language barrier as he tried to get his message across, but his mime of a man firing a gun was clear enough for all to understand.
While four of the soldiers took up positions covering the ground around the parked Landrovers, Col Gray and Capt Barry, escorted by the remaining two Argylls, approached the checkpoint.
For a few minutes, there was an animated conversation. The first man said that he had been kidnapped – or car-jacked, as it would be called in Britain – that his car had been shot up and that he did not feel safe on the road.
He was worried the kidnappers would come back for him, he said. He was from Basra and he wanted the soldiers to escort him up the road. Col Gray could not help, but he offered to send a message to a nearby army base to ask for assistance. The police did not seem unduly concerned.
Eventually, the groups separated, the police waving their hands dismissively and returning to their positions, the two men walking in the opposite direction and Col Gray and his men returning to their vehicles.
“People don’t trust the police,” said Capt Barry, then thought about it for a bit. “Some people don’t trust some of the police,” he corrected himself. “But what is worrying is that it happened to him so close to the checkpoint.”
The soldiers climbed back into their vehicles and continued on their way. A mile or so further down the road, they passed another police station. “It has got better but it is not that uncommon an occurrence,” Capt Barry added.
The Land Rovers drove on, past the Argylls’ Riverside base and the giant chimneys of the nearby power station and on towards Basra.
The Argylls and their ICDC proteges have scored some notable successes against the gangs and the militias in recent weeks, to the extent that one of the gangs has threatened the major of the ICDC unit working with troops at the Riverside because he conducted a successful operation which ended in the arrest of a key gang member.
The gang has told the major that they will kidnap his son unless he pays five million dinars, enough money to cover the cost of lawyers to get the suspect off the charges. But despite all their efforts, a year after the war ended, the commanding officer of a British regiment still cannot travel from one base to another along the country’s main highway from Baghdad to the south without a heavily-armed guard.
The upsurge in support for Sadr and the tensions surrounding his future have only added to the problems the coalition faces in the south.
As the Land Rovers reached the bridge, the traffic slowed almost to a standstill at the last checkpoint, but they crossed without incident.
Anyone looking back could not have failed to notice the fresh posters of Sadr pasted to the large green road sign over the arrow pointing north.