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Monument to peace stands in ruined battlefield

By David Fox

Click to enlarge photo

BASRA (Reuters) - In the midst of a war-ruined landscape on the western outskirts of Basra, a lonely monument to peace still stands.

A small mosque and mausoleum escaped undamaged from a massive air bombardment by U.S. and British forces on the outskirts of Basra where a company of dozens of Iraqi armoured vehicles had dug themselves in to defend the city.

Twisted, burned-out hulks are all that remain of the Iraqi defences. The landscape resembles that of the moon -- a vast, crater-pitted surface stretching as far as the eye can see.

Sandbagged bunkers have been blown back into the desert from where they were dug. Unused bombs and ammunition from Iraqi stores and caches are littered everywhere.

There is scarcely a building that hasn't been destroyed, scarcely a plant that hasn't been blown out of the ground. Even the birds seem to have vanished.

But the mosque, with lapis inlays proclaiming the names of the prophet surrounding a central dome, is in pristine condition.

"Iraqi soldiers came and hid in here and stole the fittings," said wizened caretaker Abdul Salam as he showed a Reuters team around the premises.

"The light fittings, they took. The door knobs, they took. Everything that they could remove, they took," he said.

The mosque doubles as a mausoleum to a Muslim holy man, Ansa bin Malik, described in a modest plaque as a servant of the Prophet Mohammed.

A green shroud covers his tomb, where a vase of dried flowers gathers dust.

"They took all my clothes," said Salam's wife, Nejwa. "Some of the soldiers dressed as women and ran away."

The fate of the soldiers is unclear. But either they were caught unawares by the attack, or they fled in a hurry.

In a nearby hut, Iraqi helmets hang from hooks hammered into a wooden beam. Discarded uniforms lie abandoned in the surrounding bunkers.

A discarded plate and cup -- with the remains of food attracting swarms of buzzing flies -- were left behind during the hasty evacuation.

The battleground lies between Basra's airport and the city itself, a strategic area but one that offers little scope for defence from the air -- from where Iraqi forces have proved most vulnerable.

Tanks and artillery pieces were dug into positions, but they have been blown up -- many by apparent direct hits. A row of Chinese-made missile launchers now appear like skeletons, stripped by a scorching inferno of everything but steel.

Dozens of trucks used to carry troops and ammunition dot the landscape, their tyres melted to a blackened blob.

It was unclear whether the mosque survived the bombardment because U.S. and British forces deliberately avoided hitting it so as not to offend Muslim sensitivities, or if it somehow miraculously escaped the onslaught.

"American soldiers did not come here," said Salam. But an empty British ration pack blown by the wind against the fence was evidence troops had passed by.

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