By Richard Edwards in Basra
The tanks roared through the palm tree lined streets of Basra, riding alongside donkey carts and horse carriages.
The only thing that drowned the sound of their thunderous engines was the jubilant cheering of locals lining the streets, a thousand smiles on their faces.
Twelve years ago the people of Basra rose against Saddam Hussein and were crushed in a bloody retaliation.
This morning they woke up to freedom.
As darkness drew in last night, the sun set on Saddam’s regime in the south for the last time.
An armoured column strode unopposed through the suburbs to within minutes of the centre.
The vehicles passed one mural of the dictator. His image remained; his influence had now been shattered.
Line upon line of tanks triumphantly rumbled through the suburbs of Iraq’s second city to wards its heart, supported by hundreds of Royal Marines.
At first there was surprise on the faces of locals as they rode by on donkey wagons and wandered through the busy streets.
Slowly, the expressions of shock turned to shouts and waves as they chased the tanks, hands gesturing wildly above their heads with joy at the sight of British troops. One Iraqi man said: “We welcome you. It is safe here. There are no soldiers here now – they have all gone.” They had been expecting heavy resistance, but led by 16 Challenger tanks from the 7th Armoured Division, the troops drove five miles through the streets to within minutes of the very heart of the city.
Basra, a city the size of Birmingham, had fallen with hardly a shot being fired.It was a breathtaking, historical moment.
The men of 42 Commando had psyched themselves for their fiercest fighting yet. Casualties were expected, the date palms surrounding the city feared as a death trap.
In the morning they awaited their orders, stuck in the part-demolished confines of an old technology college, south of Basra.
A hot wind blustered through the camp, blowing children’s exercise books among shards of glass. It was an uncomfortable pause. Finally at 3:50pm local time they filled their BVs and started to rattle down the streets.
Many saw this as a final mission for the Marines – the road home ran north to Basra.
ALONGSIDE them and placed at strategic road junctions were the imposing Challenger II tanks, marked distinctively on the side with a red desert rat.
The heat, smoke and dust choked the air. The soldiers sat patiently in their seats, aware with a sweaty poise that a rocket propelled grenade might be pointing at them right at that moment, ready to fire.
They looked at each other, licking their dry lips and opening parched mouths. They were nervous.
Still the convoy moved forward. Still no sound of gunfire – and the city was in sight.
The column swung to the right, the sign to the troops they were now inside Basra. Uneasily we checked the straps of our helmets, pulled the body armour tighter around our ribs.
But the view outside was surprising.
Palm trees lined the streets and for the first time in Iraq we saw signs of wealth, grand mansions with ornate windows and extravagant grounds.
In the distance, popping up above the green, was the beautiful blue dome of a mosque, gold Arabic writing woven across it. Coming down the street, meanwhile, walked men carrying loot.
A large house near the heart of the city had been deserted. Children and adults streamed down the road, carrying wardrobes, pipes and even a toilet from its confines.
ONE man had a golden coat stand in one hand, and dragged an office chair in the other.
As they closed on the centre, so the crowds grew, children sporting football shirts, men in long white gowns, women draped head-to-toe in black, beaming smiles on their faces.
Finally, after an hour on the road, the roar of the vehicles came to a halt.
All of Basra seemed, for one second, silent and stunned.
Then it opened up, wave upon wave of people running down the streets, shouting and singing. It was a beautiful sound. It was the sound of happiness. It was the sound of freedom.