Far from Baghdad, soldiers and pilgrims shake hands

By Robert Fisk in Basra

03 January 2004

Most of Iraq is peaceful, they keep telling you at afternoon follies. An abiding theme of the occupation authorities - even when another American helicopter is shot down - is that life is normal in most of Iraq.

So I took the road to Basra yesterday, through the shrine-city of Najaf where they are still repairing the Mosque of Ali after the car-bombing which killed Ayatollah Mohamed al-Hakim last summer, and down the long road to Samawah. It grows hot as you drive south but the looters were still in coats and scarves on the highway. They had turned the grey desert into molehills for miles, trowelling down to the 4,600-year-old Sassanian past of Mesopotamia. I bounded up to the nearest thieves. Found anything? "Only a few pots so far," announced a teenager with a cigarette dangling from his lip. The looters have so thoroughly despoiled the cities that gave birth to our own civilisation that it's gone beyond tears.

But then on the road south of Nasiriyah, an extraordinary sight. Two American Humvees and military police having their pictures taken by Iranian pilgrims. Impossible. Incredible. The sons of the Islamic Revolution chatting to the military representatives of the Great Satan. But true.

They were a nice crowd of Iranians and Americans. Tehran beards and chadors meet the local Colorado National Guard. The soldiers were laid back, a young woman from Colorado Springs cheerfully smiling into a dozen Iranian cameras, pilgrims to the Najaf and Kerbala shrines moving into frame. These pictures would be brought out, in the weeks to come, around a hundred Tehran dinner tables.

The soldiers chatted to those Iranians who spoke English, pitied their two-day bus journey from Tehran, privately bemoaned their own fate at spending 11 months in Iraq. They didn't like the war, didn't think they should be in Iraq, didn't believe it was about democracy. "I spent a week in Baghdad and that was enough," one of the Americans said. "It's really shit up there." And so, of course, it is. Which is why the folks from Colorado have an easy time in Basra, basking in the residual gratitude of a Shia population still celebrating the end of their Baathist tormentors.

Will it last? "I doubt it," a bespectacled sergeant remarked. They all talked about "occupation" rather than "liberation" - which is why, I guess, they really do come from the land of the free. Or maybe it's because you can't stop soldiers talking.

Further down the motorway, tanker convoys hummed along the carriageways, hundreds of trucks, oil carriers from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, fuelling the entire American occupation army while the people of Iraq wait for days in four-mile gas queues, herded into order by armed militiamen. This is Halliburton easing the springs of war and lining its pockets. A burnt-out American truck lay at one side of the highway, a massive portable building slewed onto its side on the south-bound carriageway where a military truck had slipped its load.

That was when a Humvee overtook me at speed, its visored, flak-jacketed crew swinging their heavy machine-gun at all us civilians. Then one of the masked figures gave us a wave and a thumbs up and I saw what he'd written in dust on the window of his Humvee - "Take Me Home". Now there's the voice of the occupation army.