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Final curtain

PUBLISHED: 19:21 08 April 2003 | UPDATED: 13:42 03 March 2010

AS the scouring mist of a sandstorm eclipsed the horizon, the final curtain today began to fall on Saddam Hussein's regime in Basra.

Instead of the potshots and missiles of the last week hurled in their direction, aircrew flying over the south main city of the south today reported that crowds of people waved to them as helicopters skimmed the tops of palm trees.

AS the scouring mist of a sandstorm eclipsed the horizon, the final curtain today began to fall on Saddam Hussein's regime in Basra.

Instead of the potshots and missiles of the last week hurled in their direction, aircrew flying over the south main city of the south today reported that crowds of people waved to them as helicopters skimmed the tops of palm trees.

Colchester-based paratroops from 3 Para, 16 Air Assault Brigade, met little resistance as they swept through the old part of the city in a dawn strike to clear up the vestiges of opposition. They were supported by Challenger II battle tanks of the Scots Dragoon Guards after efforts by British troops to compress what was left of the Fedayeen militia into the confines of the old city.

The Ba'arth party is believed to have abandoned Basra after systematic destruction of their party's infrastructure by precision-guided bombing which appears to have culminated in the death of notorious 'Chemical Ali' who has been reported dead for the third time in two weeks.

Paratroop regiment officers were attempting to confirm reports that one of their soldiers had found his body after his house was targeted in a bombing raid.

Army engineers are today preparing to secure utilities of electricity and water.

Pockets nevertheless claimed three British lives. Two soldiers from 7TH Armoured Brigade were reportedly killed when their vehicle was fired on. A third fell victim to a boobytrap bomb, according to a military spokesman.

Tankbusting Lynx Mark 7 helicopters from 3 Regiment Army Air Corps returned to their landing strip a few miles south of the city from two missions today with the same number of TOW anti-tank missiles they went out with.

To the chagrin of pilots eager to add to the tally of 'kills', live targets have dried up in the city and the only enemy tanks were the rusting hulks left by the fortnight's dual between the Desert Rats and Royal Marine Commandos and the diehard supporters of Saddam's fading regime.

As they ducked and weaved under electricity pylons as the salt plains gave way to shanty towns to the city's south side, pilots were eagle-eyed for any opportunities to eliminate the final few pick-ups whose back-mounted machine guns and mortars have been trained on British troops. But none were seen today.

From their bird's eye view, the pilots said that normality appeared to be returning for Basra's citizens near the centre of the city. Taxis, minibuses and private cars were out in strength, although some vehicles were seen heading out of the city of the port city at speed.

"People were just standing, watching and milling about," said one. "They were waving. They weren't shooting at us so I guess they were friendly," said another, a 32-year-old major on attachment to the regiment, whose New York drawl distinguished him from the clipped public school accents of the other officers.

His comrades from the 101st 'Screaming Eagles' Airborne Division were today tightening their grip on Baghdad to the north.

But here, down south, the final chapter appeared to be closing for the fanatics who have tried in vain to bolster a fightback against what appears to have been the British main objective – to rid Basra of Saddam's regime.

"It looks fairly ramshackle down there but I would say there was a minimum of damage has been done to the buildings," said a 25-year-old Lynx commander. "Basra International airport was untouched. It's in good nick."

RAF air controllers are now looking at the possibility of using the airport as a base for large transport aircraft. The war is not may not yet be over but the people of Basra can sense that peace, after a fortnight of horror, is near.


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