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Alex Thomson: the British in Basra

By Alex Thomson

Updated on 14 March 2008

Blog: Alex Thompson recounts the day the British entered Basra.

I suppose the weirdest thing was that it happened twice. So there wasn't the day, but two.

Day one happened in fairly clunky and slow fashion as a long column of Challenger Tanks formed up on the southern route into Basra and slowly smoked and ground its way up the road.

We nipped in with them. Our armoured Land Rover hovering around and then driving up alongside and, spotting a gap, moving into the convoy.

The great thing about all this armoured stuff roaring around was that, even if the army had been pissed off about this, if they'd shouted they could not be heard. But, yes, we are dealing tanks here, they could've made their displeasure felt in other ways.

Inasmuch as you can see anything at all from inside an armoured vehicle, the Basrahis seemed pretty much oblivious. There was certainly no incoming. No firing of any kind.

We followed the tanks into a school building in the southern end of the city. This was not, it seemed, going to be an occasion for storming up the corniche on the Shatt-al -Arab waterway and planting the Union flag.

Indeed any Union flag planting was strictly banned. So we stopped, got out, shook ourselves down and I did a swift piece-to-camera. The army made it clear we'd not be stopping long. This was to be in and out. We could, of course, stay on. Alone, unprotected. After all, weren't these Iraqis supposed to welcome us with open arms? Roses on the streets?

Except it wasn't DIY it was LIY: Loot It Yourself.

And then we noticed it. The sounds of scraping, prising, levering, carrying... coming from every single building around us, the school included. It was like the entire city had become possessed of frantic DIY in every single empty public building.

Except it wasn't DIY it was LIY: Loot It Yourself.

And they were. The Baathists having fled and melted away, everything that could be carried away or driven out was.

The next day as we walked into town with the parachute regiment, the atmosphere was so benign the Brits didn't even wear helmets.

Not that the Basrahis noticed, they were looting even harder. Every car, every office machine, every light switch, every radiator, every bit of furniture, every single copper pipe, every rooftop water-tank, it was all going.

I recall seeing a family loot a motor-cruiser from the river boatyard. They had no trailer. They roped it to a truck and dragged it, the metal hull sparking against the tarmac, all the way south along the dual-carriageway.

The city's only luxury hotel, where Robert Fisk and I had enjoyed elicit Scotch just a few years before, was by now stripped like human soldier ants had passed through. It smouldered too, having been set alight. But since everything wooden had gone there was little even to burn now.

And there were signs too that the mood was already shifting. Had a French TV crew been beaten up and robbed in the main bazaar? We didn't know. But the rumour seemed to fit the mood.

The Basrahis, having looted themselves out in a 48 hour orgy, now noticed these foreigners on their streets. There was no welcoming mat. The mood of frenzied kleptomania and indifference had changed. We were being noticed. Stared at. Unsmiling stares.

After the years and years of this (theoretically) oil-rich town being ripped off by Saddam, did they sense another occupation from which they would see little benefit? I know not.

But the mood, at best indifference, was hardening by the hour. They should have had their streets paved with marble given the oil wealth close by, instead their streets were filled with sewage.

True Saddam, the hated Saddam, was gone. But who were these Britishers? And, some would say, had they not been here before, a few generations ago? And did that not end in recrimination, bitterness, blood?

I left town the next day after weeks waiting in the desert to be here.

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