The paradox of Basra

Mary Kaldor
13 January 2009

When I arrived in Basra on a Royal Jordanian flight from Amman, my bags were searched. I had been reading Patrick Cockburn’s book on Muqtada al-Sadr on the plane. The glossy cover with Muqtada’s picture and English writing was greeted with excitement by the customs officers, probably themselves poor Shi’a. One of them kissed the picture of Muqtada and asked if he could keep the cover. Thus, right at the outset of my visit, I was reminded of the continuing appeal of Sadrist ideology.Mary Kaldor is professor of global governance at the London School of Economics (LSE), and convenor of the human-security study group that reports to the European Union's foreign-policy chief Javier Solana.

Last March, in what was known as the "charge of the knights", the Iraqi army invaded Basra, backed by American forces, in order to free the city of militias and criminal gangs. Ever since the British withdrew to the airport, handing power over to the provincial government in 2005, Basra had become a lawless place. Probably the most important group was the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, whose stated aim is the end of the occupation and social justice and whose main target was the British. As well as the Sadrists, however, and sometimes using the Mahdi Army for cover, a whole range of actors took part in the violence, which included widespread kidnappings both for economic and political reasons, revenge killings against former Ba’athists, sectarian attacks on Christians and Sunnis, attacks on alcohol sellers (licensed to Christians) or on women not wearing head scarves, honour killings, and killings of prominent intellectuals. Many of the people that I met in Basra had experienced the kidnapping of a family member or someone close. Two of the sons of my local guide had been kidnapped; one escaped and one was ransomed for money. A woman who runs an NGO had been kidnapped when seven months pregnant. However, she was released when the kidnappers found that it was a case of mistaken identity; they had thought she was someone who worked at the airport for the British.

The "charge of the knights" involved fierce fighting and what the Americans call "kinetic operations". Missiles were fired into areas where the militias were thought to reside, killing civilians. Some 16,000 young Iraqi men are now in American custody in a camp in the South (not all from Basra, of course, most are from the rest of Iraq). This was followed by several months of high intensity operations, in which Iraqi units searched whole areas for weapons and arrested suspected militia. In addition to those held in American custody, the Iraqis themselves have detained several hundred suspects. British forces were embedded in the Iraqi units, providing training and mentoring. Efforts have also been made to improve the performance of the police; some 4000 police belonging to militias were dismissed.

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Downtown Basra now feels very safe. I stayed in a hotel ( the one that used to be known as ‘kidnapping hotel’ by foreign journalists) and could walk around and go to a supermarket up to 9 o’clock at night without a head scarf. I walked down the main street and went to a church service on Sunday. I talked to some of the Christians although they were a little nervous. At night, the only sounds were dogs barking, cocks crowing, and the call for prayer. I was told that the Eid celebrations were livelier than any year since 1990. The only sign of abnormality was the presence of the Iraqi army in the streets.

Middle class people from a range of political parties, business and civil society, whom I interviewed, all expressed rather similar views. They are all grateful to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for his intervention. The problems faced in Basra, both political and economic, are attributed mainly to poor governance – to corruption, lack of capacity and sheer criminality among local politicians. While they favour greater autonomy for Basra in the long term, so that Basra can control more of its oil wealth, they believe that Maliki’s actions demonstrated the need for centralised government. Many are hopeful that the provincial elections to be held in January will bring in a better class of politicians. Some hope that Maliki’s party, al Da’wa, will do well, others are more sceptical about Iraqi politicians and about the tendency of all political parties to try and exert control over lives and jobs. Most dismiss the Sadrists as poor uneducated people, although one or two expressed respect for Sadrist ideology.

In contrast to downtown Basra, the slums in the suburbs, districts like Hayyaniya or Gzeiza, are as poor as any third world shanty town. Some 70 to 80 percent of the whole population of Basra is unemployed. Half-built or half destroyed dwellings, open sewers, mud and trash everywhere litter the grey and brown landscape. The army guards the entrance to these districts. We drove around the outskirts but my guide refused to enter the districts fearing, he said, for his life, and not just for mine. While I was in Basra, a British military vehicle was stoned in Hayyaniya. There were, of course, signs of reconstruction – new water plants and police stations paid for by the British. But they are, as of yet, drops in an ocean of deprivation.

Within the slums, there are some who blame the Mahdi Army for their troubles, including the loss of life and destruction of homes in the "charge of the knights". But there are also many who believe that the reduction in violence was not due to the "charge of the knights" but rather it was because Muqtada al-Sadr ordered them to put down their weapons. As one person who knows them well, said chillingly: "If Muqtada gives the order, they will write their wills and kiss their families goodbye."

The paradox of Basra is that it is one of the poorest places in the world sitting on top of vast oil wealth. Basra will never be really safe until the gap between downtown Basra and the slums has been overcome – a gap that came into existence during Saddam’s time. The British are due to leave in June. Will they leave behind the same underlying tensions? Or will they be able to build on the new-found security to address the concerns of young men like the customs officer who took my book cover?

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