Gethin Chamberlain, in Basra, for The Scotsman, 17 April 2004
ODAY al-Dibaj clasps the bars of his prison cell, his hair cropped close to his head, his beard neatly trimmed.
He speaks fast, and passionately. The people love Muqtada al-Sadr, Dibaj says, because Sadr loves his country and supports all the good people in Iraq.
Around him, the 20 or so other men with whom he shares his filthy cell in Basra’s main prison press forward, agreeing with him, talking over him.
Behind them, in between the slogans painted on black sheets, a picture of Sadr dominates the rear wall.
The British did a good job in getting rid of Saddam, says Dibaj, but now they need to hand over authority and leave Iraq.
They must stop the Americans putting Sadr in jail, he says. Dibaj has been in prison for four months, awaiting trial for a killing he denies. There are 396 other prisoners packed into cramped and wretched cells, the stench of their own excrement overwhelming the senses.
The prison is meant to house 200 people, the governor explains, but even then it would be uncomfortably full. It is a breeding ground for dissent.
It is nearly a year since George Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq. Since then, most of the attention has been on the area around Baghdad and the so-called Sunni triangle, at the heart of which lies Fallujah.
The south of the country has slipped from the public gaze; the casual observer might be forgiven for thinking that peace has descended on Basra and the surrounding countryside. But in the last week there have been disturbing reminders that the situation in the south remains as fragile as it has ever been.
The British are not being picked off with quite the metronomic regularity of their coalition allies further north but in the last week a British soldier has lost a leg and the commanding officer of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Lieutenant Colonel Jonny Gray, survived a rocket attack when the grenade hit the front tyre of his vehicle and bounced off, exploding a little way away. He keeps the detonator cap on his desk as a souvenir.
A year ago, Basra was a mess. The water was off, the electricity was at best intermittent and looting was endemic. The streets were filled with rubbish and businesses stood boarded up, too afraid to reopen.
The police force had retired to their homes and locked the doors, and the army had taken off their uniforms and drifted away.
Today, there are signs that Basra is getting back on its feet. The electricity is on, for most of the time, and there is water, though never quite enough, it seems. On the streets, traffic flows freely; indeed, it flows everywhere, on both sides of the roads, buses overtaking donkey carts and taxis weaving through the chaos.
But everywhere there are reminders that this is a fragile peace. A year ago it was safe to fly into Basra on one of the RAF’s Tristar passenger jets; today, troops entering Iraq fly first to Qatar before transferring to a Hercules transport plane for the final leg of the journey.
The first thing that they are told on arriving in Basra is that security is high; it is pretty hot at the moment, the briefing officer warns them. Last week, it seemed for a while that it would boil over as anger about the treatment of Sadr fuelled public defiance.
Sadr may not represent the views of many of the Shia majority and the senior clerics may regard him as something of a clown, but there was deep resentment at the way in which his attempts to increase his power base were slapped down.
“For a time we were staring into the abyss,” Lt Col Gray admits. “All the people I spoke to realised that we were at a strategic tipping point – we could have gone one way or the other but the locals stood back and decided not to go there and I think all sides have learnt a lot from that. But there was certainly a point at which we held our breath, midweek last week.”
Since they arrived in Iraq at the start of the year he says his forces have seen more action than many units saw during the whole of the war. They have come up against hijacking gangs, who grab people from their cars before driving them away, smugglers and a number of pre-planned ambushes.
But with the Sadr stand-off defused, at least temporarily, the biggest worry for the coalition is that the new Iraqi security forces cannot be relied upon to put down an uprising by followers of Sadr or other militia such as the Badr Brigades.
The police and the new army are nervous; as things stand at the moment, if they thought that their lives were in danger, it is unlikely that they would stand their ground.
Amir Hamed Kiram, a second lieutenant in the new police force, admits as much. In his neat blue shirt, pressed trousers and with his pistol neatly holstered, he is everything the coalition could hope for in an officer in Iraq’s new police force.
But sitting in the al-Maqal police station, with its new Mitsubishi police cars parked outside, Mr Kiram is uncertain about the future. He joined the police force three years ago; during the fighting he simply went home and it was two months later that he finally emerged to resume his old job. He is glad that Saddam has gone – “we were treated like slaves, we were not allowed to do our job,” he says – and he is happy with the new equipment they have been given. But he knows he is a target for those who will try to grab a slice of power when the coalition hands over.
“I don’t think we will be able to manage when the British hand over,” he says. “One of the tribes can come and occupy this police station because we are representatives of the law and we are a very simple target.”
Mr Kiram’s answer is simple; there must be a strong president with absolute power. He doesn’t know who it should be – he says he respects no politicians – but he is certain it must be strong, like Saddam’s regime.
This is the dilemma for the coalition. Sadr may not carry the whole population with him but people identify with what they see as his desire to stand up for the Shia, so long oppressed in Iraq.
Even on a Friday, the quietest day of the week, the Five Mile Market is heaving. Here anything can be bought; televisions, furniture, the latest DVDs, phones, drugs, firearms.
In his mobile phone shop next to the crossroads, Mad Salim Abed is pleased with what has happened since the British arrived. There are people with money now who can afford to buy his phones, people on good salaries, policemen, administrators. He gets the phones from other countries, and does not have to worry about paying taxes.
At 38, Mr Abed has carved out a successful business to support himself and his wife. But when asked who he wanted to run the country, it is Sadr whose name comes first to his lips.
“Sadr is the only one who represents the Iraqi people,” he says. “He is very young. He supports the poor people in Iraq.”
Basra is still poor. The air is thick with the smell of sewage and smoke. Despite the enormous leaps that the British forces have made in attempting to involve the local population in ensuring their own security, the troops who patrol the streets in their armoured Land Rovers now do so in body armour and helmets. A year ago, they wore soft hats. Some things change, some don’t. Basra may have stepped back from the brink of the abyss, but the abyss is still there.