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On a recent overcast afternoon in Basra, two new police SUVs drove onto a dusty, rubbish-strewn football pitch where a group of children were playing. The game stopped and the kids looked on. Three men in white dishdashas got out of one of the cars. One, holding a Kalashnikov, stood guard as the other two removed some metal tubes and cables from the back of a vehicle. As the two men fiddled with the wires, the man with the gun waved it at a teenager who wanted to film with his mobile phone.
Then, amid cries of "Moqtada, Moqtada" and "Allahu Akbar", there were two thunderous explosions and a pair of Katyusha rockets streaked up into the sky.
Their target would be the British base in Saddam Hussein's former palace compound. Their landing place could be anywhere in Basra, and was most likely to be a civilian home. The "magnetic fields" are the latest rumour doing the rounds of Basra's militias; another is that the British are shelling civilians to damage the reputation of the Mahdi army.
The scene I had just watched was an everyday incident in an area long regarded as relatively safe and stable compared with the civil war-racked regions to the north.
But as the British army's decision not to deploy Prince Harry highlighted this week, Basra and the nominally British controlled areas around it are far from secure. During a recent nine-day visit, politicians, security officials and businessmen explained how the streets of the city were effectively under the control of rival militias competing to control territory, the fragile post-Saddam apparatus of state and revenue sources such as oil and weapons smuggling.