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Prince Harry: The Saviour of Basra?

The prince’s deployment to southern Iraq could prove a public relations coup for the British military.
By Salaam Radhi
Rumours that insurgents will target Prince Harry when he arrives for his tour of duty in Iraq are hardly surprising. More unexpected, however, is the warm welcome the third-in-line to the British throne looks set to receive from many ordinary Iraqis in Basra.

In what may turn out to be the British Army’s biggest public relations success in Iraq, the announcement that Princess Diana's youngest son is to be deployed for six months in the south has been greeted with considerable enthusiasm, at least in Basra.

In interviews conducted by IWPR, Basra residents gave various reasons for welcoming the prince, who will come as a serving officer with the Blues and Royals.

Some are impressed that a senior royal is willing to put his life on the line in such a dangerous country, and that Britain is willing to let him do so.

Others hope that as a royal rather than a politician, he might play some mediating role between the army and the people of Basra, where ten British soldiers have been killed and 60 injured in the past three months alone.

Accustomed to seeing the sons of their own leaders enjoying lives of privilege and comfort, they are surprised and pleased at the egalitarian approach of a British prince serving in the army like any ordinary citizen.

Nadhim al-Jabri, media manager for Basra regional council, said Prince Harry’s deployment to Iraq should be “a lesson to the leaders of the Arab peoples”. It is, he says, in sharp contrast to “Arab countries where the sons of officials and leaders have to be in important and high places”.

Basra governorate council member Fuad al-Mazni hopes Prince Harry’s arrival will in some way contribute to improving security in the region.

“The presence of a member of the royal family at such a level will [help to] create a secure and stable atmosphere," he said.

Basra taxi driver Muhammed Jawad also has high hopes for Prince Harry’s deployment. “This man may tackle the rebuilding of Basra city, working together with us Iraqis,” he said.

Such unrealistic expectations highlight the desperation felt by many in Iraq’s second largest city, which was badly neglected under Saddam Hussein’s regime.

The British government has just announced plans to reduce its troop deployment in southern Iraq from 7,100 to 5,500 within the next few months, with the rest to pull out by 2008.

But many fear that after they go, Shia militias who already have a strong grip on Basra will take over completely, and the violent power struggles between them will only intensify.

Over the past five months, British and Iraqi troops have tried to strengthen the rule of law and push back militias like the Mahdi Army, the Badr Brigades and other factions that have infiltrated police forces and are imposing their vision of Islam on Basra.

Given the levels of violence, there are fears that Iraqi troops are not yet ready to replace the British. “Our forces fall short on combat methods and lack new weapons to deter the… enemies of the new free Iraq," said Brigadier-General Abu Husam al-Musawi.

For militia groups like the Mahdi Army of militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, expelling the foreign troops remains the top priority.

Despite UK media reports that Prince Harry could be kidnapped and paraded on television as a hostage, Mahdi Army member Abu-Ali al-Biaj professed indifference to the prince’s impending arrival.

"We don't care whether he’s here or not. What matters is driving out the occupiers," said al-Biaj.

Last week, the 133rd British soldier died in Iraq, hit by a sniper while on patrol in north Basra.

Civil servant Ali Abdul-Radha speculated that Prince Harry’s presence could act as a catalyst to end the bloodshed, saying he could be “a key factor in solving many of the outstanding problems between the British Army and its opponents”.

He hopes Prince Harry’s arrival could mark a turning point in the ongoing violence and bring “a sigh of relief” for the people of Basra.

Anam Tawfiq Abdul-Kareem, a 27-year-old student, is keen to see a prince come to her city, but not because she sees him as a glamorous celebrity – in fact, she worries that his arrival could generate a media circus that distracts people from more important issues.

Nonetheless, she remains hopeful and excited. “We want this to be a transition point towards peace and security," she said.

Salaam Radhi Oufi is an IWPR contributor in Basra.

This article has been produced with support from the International Republican Institute (IRI).

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