The Battle For Basra

When we checked in for our Iraqi airways flight to Basra at Baghdad airport, it did not surprise me that we were the only foreigners in line, the Iraqi passengers around us staring with curiosity and amazement.

The Shiite-dominated city in southern Iraq has been a no-go area for more than two years now, not just foreigners but for Sunnis and even Shiites from other parts of the country.

That's because it is essentially run by Shiite rival militias competing for power who have infiltrated the police force and receive endless backing from Iran, just across the border.

People here say British forces that were meant to restore peace and security have "done a deal with the devil" by ceding control to the militias instead of taking them head-on. The British forces here dispute that vehemently, arguing their mission was to ensure a stable environment in which Iraqi politics can function, and that is what they've done.

The problem is that politics and the militias are inseparable as competing groups fight for control of this oil-rich province and terrorize the local populace. Officially, the line is that Basra is relatively stable because there are no spectacular al Qaeda-style attacks and none of the sectarian violence seen further north around Baghdad. But that means nothing to residents too afraid to speak out against the governor, the government and the gunmen ruling their streets.

We were warned repeatedly that we were crazy to head off into the town without the protection of the British military. But if we wanted to tell the story and see the situation in Basra for ourselves, we had no choice. So our small team - producer Randall Joyce who carries a second camera, and cameraman Sami Awad - joined me on an insane adventure into the heart of violent Shiite extremism.

For me as a woman, that meant wearing loose-fitting black clothes and a head scarf to respect the very conservative religious traditions that prevail here. It was hot, and every time I put on a headscarf I am torn between the novelty, a sense of duty to observe the cultures of others, and hatred for what it means in my eyes to the freedom and rights of women.

Of course, what you always discover when you go to a place is that it's more complicated than you can ever understand from a distance. I was told the governor was a tyrant, both backed by Iran and estranged from his Iranian backers (depending on who you believe), and that people who speak out against him will be killed. Yet I found a charming, open, frank and very forthright man who didn't shy away from a single question I put to him in our two-hour-long interview, not even when I asked him about being feared by his people.

It's clear his relationship with Tehran is not where he wants it to be. And that could mean he's angry with his backers for assisting his enemies more than him, like the Mehdi Army and Badr Corp, Iraq's two biggest Shiite militia groups. Or it could be that he really is resentful of the extent of Iranian influence in his country, as the British officers and political advisers I spoke to seem to believe.

Others laughed at that idea, as if there was no way the governor was not heavily involved with Tehran. U.S. intelligence certainly traces links to his party and Iranian bases across the border, but as with everything here, it's impossible to know for sure.

What I do know, without any doubt, was that when we arrived at Basra airport we stood out like whales on a hostile beach, dozens of police and intelligence officers looking at us with something approaching hostility and downright suspicion.

What I have learned along the way, in my seventeen years of working as a journalist and traveling to different places, is that you can always use a smile to gage the real temperature of a people and a place, and so that is what I did. With a few words of greeting in Arabic, it eased the tension a little, but I had no doubt we were firmly in the grip of the lion's jaw.

Our madness peaked as we finally left the airport expecting to see our armed security escort Governor Waili had sent to pick us up. We'd been arranging the meeting with his men through our Lebanese cameraman, whose Arabic easily saved our lives on this trip. But when the very laid back Sami Awad hung up the phone and said, "We have to meet them at the bridge, they can't come into the airport for security reasons," we were stunned. Randall, Sami and I stared at each other, scanned the surrounding desert landscape and looked at each other again.

In every direction, as far as the eye could see, were barren, dusty plains under the burning sun. Not only was there no sign of a bridge, but with my bad eyes, I couldn't even make out a road leading to a bridge and neither could my trusty comrades.

It was at that point, as we were facing a never-ending walk into the middle of one of Iraq's most dangerous cities, that we had to face the possibility we might never make it out of here alive.

There was no way any of us would have considered turning around at that point. You have to exhaust all options and know you can't make the impossible happen before you can even consider giving up. But standing there all alone outside the arrivals at the airport, surrounded only by increasingly nosy policemen, we knew we could be snatched at any moment.

It was probably nothing more than dumb luck for us that the first policeman to swoop down on these three lost-looking foreigners was quite receptive to that smile I flashed and even more receptive to the bag of candy I happened to have in my rucksack. Sami was able to ask him in Arabic if he'd give us a ride, and Randall had the policeman talk to our contact over the phone so they knew where the governor's security convoy was waiting.

All this time, a nagging fear persisted about the militias and police complicit in kidnappings and executions across Iraq, and, of course, the sense that we could easily be going straight to our deaths.

I can't say it was relief to finally reach three pick-up trucks packed with masked gunmen and a luxury four-by-four driven by the head of security in black suit, red tie and carrying a pistol, but it was at least a sense of euphoria that we'd made it this far.

As we roared through the streets of the town, the gunmen stopping traffic and waving their weapons to ensure we passed quickly through the town, I settled back into that familiar feeling of comfort that this is the country and the life that I have known for the past four years here, and two years before that in Afghanistan. This crazy place, and how it works, is just like home. How sad is that?
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