Star reporter with Iraq security patrol
VILLAGERS poured out their thanks with as much enthusiasm as they had ransacked the barracks and defaced the image of their hated former leader. On the huge picture that overlooked the entrance to this whitewashed compound, a symbol of his once iron grip, Saddam had been monstered with horns, his face and insignia blanked out with savage swipes of black paint.
VILLAGERS poured out their thanks with as much enthusiasm as they had ransacked the barracks and defaced the image of their hated former leader.
On the huge picture that overlooked the entrance to this whitewashed compound, a symbol of his once iron grip, Saddam had been monstered with horns, his face and insignia blanked out with savage swipes of black paint. People threw shoes at the ruined placard – the ultimate Arabic insult.
Inside, the place had been torn apart. Rubble lay strewn on the floor of its many rooms, which were littered with documents and ammunition casings, some spent, some not. Hundreds of unsigned certificates recruits at this army training establishment would have been once proud to receive were charred and torn. But the would-be recipients and their instructors had been put to flight in evident short order by the same furious mob who were now embarrassing us with thanks and repeating the mantra 'Bush good, Bush good. Thanks you, thank you." Someone added in shades of Lionel Richie as a donkey trap trotted past: "Hello, I love you."
As if to emphasise the brutal conviction with which they had ejected the servants of a despised regime, one of the men picked up a broken piece of concrete and mimicked clashing it against his head, pointing excitedly into a room thick with flies and the unmistakable stench of death. Two bloody bundles of rags lay in there. I didn't look any closer
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As we left, the throng pressed around our two 4x4s broke into a round of applause. But a sharp edge of bitterness lingered underneath their obvious delight. A shot rang out, but as with most of the sporadic gunfire that crackles round these parts, we had no idea whether it was fired in celebration or in anger.
Order has to be returned soon but the situation is not desperate despite a shocking reminder of the innocent victims of war. A rusty Datsun saloon flagged us down. Inside was three-year-old Hussein whose face had been burnt off by cordite when he had played with the 14.5mm rounds that were scattered around the barracks. His face was torched pink with yellow scabs beginning to form. He had kept his eyebrows and lips and he was obviously in agony but shock kept him stock-still and silent on the front seat of his father's car, cradling sweets Corporal Russ Hewitt gave him. Mohammed, an electricity engineer, smiled as he explained his son's predicament, heartbreaking to look, at but he had been treated at hospital and given an injection to numb the pain. Kids will be kids, Mohammed, a father-of-seven, seemed to suggest in broken English.
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Villages that line the deluvial banks of the Tigris in the Missan province including Amara, the provincial centre, liberated itself when coalition forces crossed into Iraq. The people are close to Iran, forty kilometres away – many have strong family links with across the border and share the same firmly rooted Shia faith. Green and black flags, green for shia, black for Islam, flutter from the tops most houses. Until militias raised by two local sheikhs, Abu Hatim and Mohammed al Badi, prized the area out of Saddam's grip it was hard to be a Shia. Religious observance was frowned upon by Saddam's regime: curfews disrupted the call to prayer and no one was allowed to speak to the person next to them in a mosque. Saddam was scared stiff of the volatile mix of religion and politics that imams, the chief priests, could bring to bear.
"Don't talk to me about religion and politics," smiled Lieutenant Colonel Tim Collins, the tough-talking CO of 1 Royal Irish, in his Belfast brogue. His men are well acquainted with that hotbed of sectarianism, Northern Ireland and he is the man in charge of restoring to Amara a civilised way of life from the eddying currents of jubilation, recrimination and lawlessness that has followed in the wake of war.
In a whirlwind tour of the town, Col Collins was choosing key positions to steer his area of operation back to normality. He decreed that one grand-looking house with a spiral staircase will become the CIMIC base for civil and military co-operation – as 'hearts and minds' ops are known here. The man and his gaggle of sons who were squatting complained to the wrong man. "I don't have a house," wailed the squatter. "Tell him I don't have a house either," Col Collins barked back.
His cavalcade of vehicles came to another abrupt stop. The old town hall was to be the next police station, the colonel had decided, but looters had left public records, papers, tax returns and housing applications carpeting the burn-out rooms. Some were still in the building rifling through what little else was there for the taking. Big mistake.
"Get out now!" came the colonel's cry from within the building, little need for translation, as a group of three young Iraqi men walked as fast as their legs could carry them and still manage to retain the insouciance of naughty schoolboys. Others remained and a shot rang out. A couple more would-be looters scurried out followed by the colonel, holstering his pistol after firing his warning shot into the ceiling.
"That's the way business is done in this country," he said. "It works."
Security is now the priority for Amara and its surrounding villages. "The most important thing is security because without security we cannot work," said the director of Amara's hospital over pleasantries and sweet tea with the colonel. "We want to deliver security in partnership with the Iraqi people," he replied, as a Shia cleric furiously took notes beside the director, a Ba'ath Party member who has nonetheless at the colonel's insistence been included in a new community civilian committee leading Amara's regeneration, post-Saddam. "He's doing a good job," he said.
Life here is a maze of vested interests but looting is petering out under the colonel's approach of zero tolerance and joint patrols between the Iraqi police force and British Royal Military Police are soon to begin, once the estimated 2,000 police officers in the region who left work when the war started are coaxed back onto the beat.
Major Bryn Parry-Jones, of Colchester-based 156 Provost Company, hopes that the template used in Afghanistan will work as well, if not better, in Iraq because the country's framework of law and order is particularly well-developed and akin to the British justice system.
"The first challenge is to get a police force that the civilian community will respect and obey back on its feet again."
In the mean time, there is Colonel Collins and his pragmatic, quickfire certainty of a soldier. They are lucky to have him - but the residents of Amara should cross him at their peril.