Basra today - calm after the storm

The Evening Star's JAMES FRASER was one of the first journalists to see the newly liberated city of Basra from the air. Today he gives a flavour of how life in the city is today.

The Evening Star's JAMES FRASER was one of the first journalists to see the newly liberated city of Basra from the air. Today he gives a flavour of how life in the city is today.

"It's lot more comfortable than last time we were here. One of our aircraft was shot at by a SAM-7."

There was slim chance of an Iraqi surface-to-air missile reappearing over Basra as the commander of the Lynx Mk 9 helicopter tailed his combat patrol of Lynx Mk 7 swooping low over the outskirts of a city which was now entirely in British hands.

For its citizens it was time to re-embrace normality. Unconcerned by the burnt-out hulk T-55 on the roadside, rush-hour traffic flowed out towards Al Zubair while across the highway afternoon sun glinted on the broadening ribbon of the Shatt al Arab and slicks of oils on the surrounding salt marshes.

The horrors of the past fortnight seemed to have little mark on the city from the air. Desert Rats scrubbed themselves in improvised showers on the international airport's runway, which was unscathed. Elsewhere a handful of houses wore their roofs on the ground in a pile of rubble and other armoured vehicles littered the streets, stopped in their tracks.

But the ordinary people seemed to have shrugged off war. There is a phrase in Arabic that denotes happiness. It literally means "on top of the palms". A carpet of palm trees was spread out below us and the upturned faces of Basra's people beamed up. They seemed genuinely happy.

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Along palm-fringed roads where a week ago Royal Marines had fought house-to-house through the suburb of al Khalib, whole groups of families strolled in the sunshine, some smiling and every single child waving beneath us.

The doorgunner, his 7.62mm machinegun today underemployed, returned the silent, unstinting compliments sweeping the ground. When he did, a little girl jumped with joy as she excitedly ran back to her parents.

On the sun-baked flat roofs in this south-east corner of the city, some crouched over bowls of washing interrupted their chores to give the Army Air Corps' three Lynx the thumbs-up and a grin. We were close enough to see the whites of their teeth.

But not all were pleased by the overhead commotion. Stern-faces in burkas called their broods to heel as chickens scrambled to safety and one dog chased its tail in the shade of the courtyard all the houses in this affluent area appeared to have.

Signs of the operation the day before to mop up the final vestiges of resistance, which military sources said had lost all co-ordination, still lingered. A thick pall of black smoke from what looked like an oil trench drifted across the north of the city. On closer inspection we could see there had been an impact but whatever it had been was nothing but soot, flame and a 30ft scorch mark.

On the banks of the great Shatt al Arab, the once-prized crown jewel of the city, the cream pillars and expansive gardens presidential palace looked untouched. The red dome of its main building admittedly needed a lick of paint - but Saddam must have enjoyed the well-appointed view across the emerald waters. That was the honour today of t-shirted Royal Marines, lounging on the balcony of the palace's ornate boathouse. Along the manicured drive of Saddam's riverside hideaway, a neat line of the Marines' camouflaged vehicles were parked as if they had arrived for an official function. They had definitely not been invited.

As the trio of Lynx completed their mission there was a chance to see close-up a factory that in the first days of the city's defence the Fedayeen had packed with stores and explosives and had quickly found themselves at the business end of the Lynx effect.

TOW anti-tank missiles fired from similar aircraft by colleagues from 3 Regiment Army Air Corps had punched through the roofs of the factory's buildings in a daring night-time attack.

More than two weeks later, riddled with holes, the charred wrecks of the regime's cache continued to smoulder.