Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Guest blogger: Postcard from Basra 

A good friend of this blog, Steven Vincent, reports from Basra, in southern Iraq. Steven is the author of "In the Red Zone: A Journey into the Soul of Iraq", some of the best reporting to come out of post-liberation Iraq (reviewed here), and he's currently working on a follow-up. Steven also writes for his own blog, where you can regularly check on his progress.

Dear Arthur--

Greetings from Al-Fahya, Sindbad'’s old port-of-call, where the days are hot, the evenings balmy, Chinese-made rockets periodically fall into the Shatt and half the religious parties vying for control of this southern Iraqi city are stalking horses for the mullahs of Tehran.

You don'’t hear much about Basra these days, mainly because Baghdad tends to suck up the media oxygen. Down here, though, the Baathi Saddamites and homicidal martyrs of the north seem a world away and a species of humanity apart from the generally copasetic Shia (with the obvious exception of Moqtada al-Sadr). Here, too, aside from the occasional marooned Sunni fanatic, people scoff at the idea that the "“insurgents"” form some sort of patriotic "“Resistance,"” viewing them instead as majnoon, or "“crazy."” Conversely, British troops earn high marks and even Amriki comes in for some scattered praise. "“People here say they hate the U.S., but most of them are lying," says a local journalist. Occupation, where is thy sting?

Still, all is not rosy on the Shatt-al-Arab. Two years after its liberation, Basra still resembles something out of a Sergio Leone movie--a town of unpaved streets, crumbling buildings, corrupt politicians, suspicious-minded residents, sudden outbursts of violence. Over the last week, for example, gunmen killed up to 100 ex-Baathists (as I'’ve noted elsewhere, to some there is no such thing as an "ex"” Baathist.) Ask about the identity of these murderers and people claim they don'’t know--a denial that's not exactly true: Basra's police chief recently admitted to a U.K. Guardian reporter that he believed that Iraqi cops themselves were complicit the Baathist assassinations.

Electricity--for those unfortunates without access to a generator--is on for one hour, off for five. The water still bears the poignant bouquet of a cistern, while garbage remains Basrans de facto landscaping material. There are no cinemas, no theaters, no parks--nothing for thousands of bored young (and not so young) people to do except stroll the Corniche (a promenade beside the Shatt-al-Arab), plan future weddings with their first cousins or join a religious party.

As for me, readers of my website redzoneblog.com know that I am proscribed from wandering about alone, or even in the company of Iraqis. While no one quite knows how to gauge the security threat, a bounty still lies on foreigners' heads, enticement enough for Iraqi criminals or terrorists to execute a sahafee snatch-and-grab. Which means I basically spend my free time in Basra languishing in the hotel, smoking narghiles and ordering yet another delicious meal of lamb kabobs. Better this, of course, than being outfitted for an orange jumpsuit.

Besides the heat and lack of municipal services, a few major issues engage the imaginations of those Basrans capable of conceiving a world beyond their neighborhood mosque. One is so-called "federalism," or decentralization. The majority of locals I'’ve spoken with--from members of the feared Garamsha tribe, reputed to be behind most of the crime and kidnapping that roils the city--to the head of Basra's Central Bank, want to loosen administrative ties with Baghdad. For decades, Saddam's thugs have micromanaged the goings-on of this (and every other Iraqi) city, dictating everything from the directors of water and sewage departments to who gets accused of being a Da'’wa Party member and executed. This long-standing anger with Baghdad, combined with a post-election eagerness to assume more autonomy, is encouraging today'’s Basrans to agitate for more control of their affairs. Especially since regional governance promises rewards far beyond determining the next local transportation minister, but fluus, maal--in other words, money. Lots of money.
In the cards that the Grand Croupier dealt to Iraqi cities, Basra holds all diamonds. Oil, agriculture (including the date industry), port facilities, tourism (the Shatt-al-Arab and nearby Marshlands)--the resources here are breathtaking. "Baghdad will be a ghost town, while we will make Iraqi rich again," one business leader predicts. Others envision the city becoming the next Dubai, or even greater: the center of commerce and trading for the Gulf Region, and perhaps the entire Middle East. "“Ten years, maybe 15," is the timeline you often hear for this projected miracle.

And miracle it will seem, at least at this point. Basra has everything--wealth, a motivated population, access to the sea, a relatively secure environment. But like the old joke about the baseball team that is just three men short of World Series glory--Ruth, Gehrig and Mantle--the burg is missing three crucial elements: a rehabilitated infrastructure, a working banking system and overseas capital. This last exasperates business leaders, who believe that if foreign corporations and banks awaken to the fact that the city has such a safe and secure environment for investment, Basra, like Sindbad of yore, will once again set sail for prosperity and fame. (Never mind that last month a car bomb nearly obliterated the manager of the Central Bank, along with two army officers he was traveling with...but whaddaya want, this is Iraq.)

And so Basrans toil in the blazing heat of the Arabian Gulf, waiting for fate, kismet, providence, grace--or perhaps the more earthly mechanism of globalization--to inspire them to reclaim their former greatness. They'’ve been waiting for two years--suffering for decades longer than that--yet despite their current privations, seem prepared to endure for more years to come. "Basra is the mother of Iraq, the source of its wealth and we will be again, insha'’allah,"” Mahmoud Saddoun, chairman of the province'’s Governing Council told me recently. Iraqis are patience people, and some dreams just won't die.

Yours from the land where dreams of riches dance like djinn on the desert horizon,

Steven Vincent


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