Voice from the Commonwealth Commentary, World Views and Occasional Rants from a small 'l' libertarian in Massachussetts
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An account of the exodus from Basra. And again we see brave coalition troops, British this time, putting themselves in the line of fire to defend Iraqi civilians.
A thousand people, maybe more, ran for their lives. A young woman fell, hit by shrapnel as a pick-up truck broke cover and charged forward, the machine-gun mounted on its roof spewing bullets at the crowd.
On the British side, a tank lurched forward, the gunner training his sights on the truck a few hundred yards ahead. One shot and the truck was blown apart, the three people in it killed in an instant.
Around the British positions, mortar shells were falling, the Black Watch firing back.
The crowd had made it safely across the bridge, hands raised as they ran towards the troops, ducking for cover as the British guns moved round to cover their escape.
They began moving along the road in the direction of Az Zubayr. They may take shelter there or camp out in the countryside around.
A young woman, badly hurt, was plucked to safety by a British vehicle and driven back across the lines. Others were also injured and medics rushed to tend their wounds.
Then came the clatter of rotor blades and two Lynx helicopters appeared, hovering over to the right, just visible between the concrete pillars holding up the bridge. They hung in the air for what seemed an age before releasing their missiles, guiding them into the target on the other side of the canal, then tilting and peeling away.
In the turret of his Warrior armoured vehicle, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Riddell-Webster, the commanding officer of the Black Watch, raced back to the British positions on the west side of the bridge. Its radio crackling with reports from his unit, the Warrior rattled to a halt.
The crowd had appeared at about 8am, he said, clearly desperate to flee the city. British tanks had held them at the far bank before the decision was taken to let them cross.
"We gave permission for them to come through, but there was no firing then," he said. "The people were overjoyed when we let them through, they were blowing kisses and waving their hands in thanks. As they came across the bridge, the Iraqis opened up with 50mm mortar fire. The intent was clearly to stop their own people moving across.
"Then a pick-up with a machine-gun mounted on the back came down the road and opened fire on our troops and the civilians. The machine gun was firing into the crowd. One of our tanks fired back and destroyed it, and the three people inside it. Any time we moved between our vehicles, more fire came in, hitting the vehicles.
"One of our lads had a bullet rip through his smock, which was a bit close. They wanted to get out and away. Most are heading for Az Zubayr and the farms around there, but they are not really aware of what is going on in the town so many of them will camp out in the fields.
"They want to get away but when they came across the bridge, they had their hands up. They were scared of us as well. They don’t know what is going on, but they are more scared of the Baath Party."
On the far side of the bridge were 200 or more civilians who could not get shelter on either side of the road, terrified of moving in case they came under fire. Behind them, huge plumes of black smoke drifted eastwards from the fire pits filled with oil lit by the Iraqi defenders. Across a flat landscape, there was a smell of burning oil in the air.
Inside the British compound, Warrior armoured vehicles kept their guns trained on the opposite bank, but the Iraqi guns had fallen silent. Lines started to move back across the bridge again in both directions, people coming back from Az Zubayr passing those determined to get out of Basra at the centre of the span where a British Warrior stood guard.
A Challenger tank rumbled past, heading over towards Basra and covering the Iraqi positions with its weapons.
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