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Basra after the British: division and despair in Iraq’s oil boomtown | Cities | The Guardian


Basra’s six-year period of British control following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein will come under scrutiny with the release of the Chilcot report. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad finds a city ‘run by mafias’ and still struggling with the legacy of war

aden with nets and reeking of rotten fish, the rusting dhow Ameera has just been moored up in the small Iraqi port of Al-Faw, 50 miles south-east of Basra. After 10 days of illegal fishing out in the Persian Gulf, the boat’s stocky nawkhatha (captain), Abu Karar, punches an old plastic calculator with his rough, stubby fingers, then scribbles numbers on the back of a cigarette box.

The journey has gone pretty well. The three-man crew caught three very large croakers in Kuwaiti waters and then sold them on to Pakistani traders in Iranian waters, all the while evading the coastguards of three nations. But the money made (about US$1,250) is not enough for Abu Karar to take back anything to his family. And often, these illegal trips carry a heavier price.

“I have been caught more than 30 times,” says the captain. “The Kuwaitis beat us and the Iranians put us in jail – but what other options do I have? We are a trampled nation.”

Thirteen years on from the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraq is a country still dogged by war and corruption, pulled apart by opposing political and religious forces, and struggling to define its character.
Basra’s historic canals are now swamps of rubbish.
Basra’s historic canals are now swamps of rubbish. Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad for the Guardian

The trauma is all too apparent in Basra, the largest city in southern Iraq – whose six-year period under British control, following Saddam’s overthrow, will come under renewed scrutiny this week with the expected release of the Chilcot report. The report will examine both the decision to go to war and Britain’s conduct in the invasion and its aftermath.

All around the city, the legacy of that time hangs heavy.

“I am 52, and have been working since I was 12,” Abu Karar says. “I was a fruit picker, a sailor, a teacher, a conscript soldier in the war with Iran, and now I am a captain. But in all those years, I never lived through such hardship as I have lived from 2003 up to this hour.”

The captain’s life story spans the wars and tragedies of Basra over the past four decades – starting, as with everything in Iraq, with Saddam.

“He began the destruction of this country,” Abu Karar says, his usual smile replaced by a deep sadness. “When the war with Iran started [in 1980], our land became a land of war. My family fled to Karbala [a city near Baghdad], and I was conscripted to the army.”

The geography that had once made Basra a critical location for trade and cultural exchange transformed it into the gate through which every invading army marched.
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“I spent seven years here as a soldier. I watched tens of thousands of men crossing these waters, wave after wave, just to slaughter each other. When we came back after the war, our old wooden dhows were burned. Our farms had become an empty desert, dug with war trenches, where nothing can grow even today.”

The ousting of Saddam and the arrival of the British, he says, brought renewed hope for the city and its people. “When another war started, and we saw the British tanks drive through the city, we were told that life will be very beautiful. ‘Things will change,’ they said, ‘we will all get better.’”

Abu Karar looks despairing, like someone who has been cheated in a deal. For a moment he is silent, amid the harsh metallic sound of the dhows grinding against each other. But then he smiles again.

“Actually, I have got one thing from the British. In the chaos after their invasion, I squatted on government land and built a concrete shack on it.”
Oil money

The captain lives in one of many squatters’ settlements that have sprouted up around Basra, on public land seized by people fleeing the poverty of the countryside. His home is built from dark grey breeze blocks on a vast, desolate piece of land; only the pictures of Shia clergy above the door add any colour to the scene.

From his doorway, beyond a deep ditch filled with green sewage, a glittering state-of-the-art stadium is visible. Basra Sports City is one of many projects the Iraqi government began building at the end of the last decade, when oil prices reached US $100 a barrel and Basra, the country’s boomtown, was producing billions of dollars-worth of crude.
The unfinished Basra Sports City complex.
The unfinished Basra Sports City complex. Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad for the Guardian

The price of oil is now half that – but the hundreds of wells scattered through the city still spew their columns of black smoke into the sky, covering Basra in a permanently grubby haze.

From 2010 onwards, hotels, travel agencies, cafes and restaurants mushroomed in Basra, as the city became a hub for international oil companies. A new mall, Basra Times Square, brought international brands and a profusion of gleaming showrooms that exhibited row-upon-row of gleaming SUVs.

I never lived through such hardship as I have lived from 2003 up to this hour
Abu Karar

In some parts of the city, house prices remain higher than in Dubai or Beirut. Fresh roses from the Netherlands are delivered each day to two florists catering for the new, oil-wealth elite.

“I know there is money in Basra,” Abu Karar says. “I can see the money everywhere in the massive houses – I just can’t touch it.”

But beyond the facade of unnaturally lit boulevards decorated with imported palm trees lies the real city, where raw sewage flows through Basra’s historic canals – some of which are now swamps of plastic and rubbish.

The stadium, and many of the bridges and public buildings begun here during those boom years, now stand idle and unfinished. The fall in oil prices stopped the city government from paying its bills; as in the rest of Iraq, existing funds had been long ago squandered by corruption and kickbacks.
Blair’s Basra

Judge Wael Abdul Latif stands up and shuffles across his shabby office towards a cluttered cabinet. After rummaging for a bit, he returns carrying a pink Manila folder. With pride, he lays out its contents – a series of wrinkled, faded A4 coloured printouts – straightening and smoothing their frayed edges.

These pages are a reminder of Latif’s tenure as the governor of Basra, one of Britain’s very few allies during its time in control of the city.
Tony Blair meets British troops near Basra in 2003.
Tony Blair meets British troops near Basra in 2003. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

One photograph shows him walking with Tony Blair during one of the former prime minister’s surprise visits to Basra – the governor tall and stooping in an ill-fitting suit; Blair erect and beaming with confidence, a lock of hair blown over his head by the desert wind.

The judge shows me another image of his meetings with British and Iraqi officers. “Basra was the first province in Iraq to organise local elections. The British worked well, they met with locals sheikhs and attended their tribal councils. When I asked their military for a bridge, they built it in one month.”

A printout of an official portrait of the Queen has faded into pinkish hues: “I had a good relationship with all their commanders, and also with Blair,” Latif says with deep nostalgia. “I was even invited to meet the Queen once.”

He walks away from the pictures, and slumps back in his chair. “They didn’t want us to succeed,” he says, before offering a familiar lament as to why his rule, and that of the British, failed in Basra.

I had a good relationship with Blair … I was even invited to meet the Queen once
Judge Wael Abdul Latif

“They, the Iranians, worked against us from day one, directly or through their Islamic parties that dominated the city council. Every time I wanted to start a major project or bring investment to the city, the council members would hamper all my efforts and block any new project.”

The judge’s complaints are contradicted by Abu Hashem, however, a high-ranking Shia security official who has had close links to Iranian intelligence for more than two decades.

He was among the first to enter Basra from Iran after Saddam’s demise, and says that back then in early 2003, the Iranians were as clueless about how to deal with the new situation as the British were.

Days after the fall of the city to British troops, a column of military jeeps carrying a small group of seasoned Shia fighters and intelligence officers (who had been based in Iran for the past two decades) crossed the Iranian border and headed for Basra.

Ostensibly, their job was to prepare the ground for the main exiled Shia opposition forces to resettle in Iraq. In fact, their principal objective was to test the British response to their presence.
British Lynx helicopters on combat patrol over Basra in 2003.
British Lynx helicopters on combat patrol over Basra in 2003. Photograph: Ian Jones/Daily Telegraph/PA

“It was a time of confusion when we entered Iraq,” Abu Hashem says. “We didn’t know what will happen. In Iran we were always told that our war was with Great Satan [the US] and the British, so are we going to fight the Americans and the British now? Will they open fire on us?”

Back in Iran, there was similar confusion among intelligence, military and religious leaders. “Some in the Republic [Iran] thought a weak Saddam was better than a US army stationed next door,” Abu Hashem explains. “The more ideological elements argued that we should fight the US; they even wanted to issue a fatwa calling for a Jihad against the invasion. In the end we were told it was a time of ‘wait and see’.”

In fact, the column of jeeps drove all the way to Basra unopposed. Abu Hashem and his fellow exiled leaders realised not only that the British were not going to shoot at them, they were going to be their new allies – depending on the Shia Islamic parties to run the city, and give the impression that a sense of normality was returning.

Soon after these new arrivals set up their headquarters in Basra’s public buildings, however, a campaign of assassinations against former Ba’athists and army officers started. “The assassinations intimidated the whole of the society,” says Abu Salam, a long-time civil rights campaigner and union activist in Basra.

“The new parties reconstructed the society as a case of victor and vanquished. The victors were now the Shia, whose religious practices had been banned under Saddam, and the vanquished were the Sunnis, who were all labelled Ba’athists – even though many, if not most, of the Ba’athists in Basra were themselves Shia.

“I had no illusions that the occupation that could lead to state building,” Abu Salam says. “It was obvious this regime would never succeed.”
A British army corporal lowers the union flag during a 2007 ceremony to mark the transfer of control of a military base in Basra.
A British army corporal lowers the union flag during a 2007 ceremony to mark the transfer of control of a military base in Basra. Composite: Nabil Al-Jurani/AP

While the British in Basra – like the Americans in Baghdad – indulged in widespread acts of self-delusion about progress and democracy, the new Islamist arrivals dominated the new political scene here, and their military wings became the cornerstones of the newly established security forces.

“Basra is where all the resources of Iraq are based,” Abu Salam says. “From the early days, the politics of the city became a struggle about which party and which militia controlled what resource. The British forces were trying to establish relations with all these parties, and to avoid a clash at any cost.”

Meanwhile, a more radical impoverished youth, inspired and led by the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, discovered a niche for themselves by fighting the British. In the streets of Basra, a plethora of smaller militias that existed as nothing but mini-mafia cartels took their share of the city’s wealth.

These militias, intertwined with tribes and smuggling cartels, dominated every aspect of commercial life in Basra. They ran 62 floating docks for smuggling oil. Nine different “security units” worked in the port, obtaining bribes and fees. The militias and the religious parties became dispensers of justice and patronage – the gateway through which any major transaction had to be completed.

Abu Hashem, the Shia security official, explains this phenomena: “The years of exile in Iran were hard. If you worked hard by yourself, you could read books and teach yourself something – but in general we were left alone, without any chance to develop.
Militia fighters chant slogans against Isis in Basra, 2014, following their call to arms by the leading Shiite cleric.
Militia fighters chant slogans against Isis in Basra, 2014, following their call to arms by the leading Shiite cleric. Photograph: Nabil Al-Jurani/AP

“I’d told my compatriots [in Iran] that when we went back to Iraq, people would despise us because we were exiles. But I was wrong. I found out that even the humblest of exiles – those who had nothing to do in Iran but loiter – started getting positions for themselves. They saw a void, and they filled it.”

He adds: “The Iranians, like everyone in this region – the Syrians; even America’s allies the Saudis and Emiratis – they all wanted this American experiment to fail, and they all worked to make it fail. They allowed Al-Qaida to enter, and Iran started forming ‘special groups’ to target British and American interests.”

In 2007, just as British and American pronouncements about their successes – and the readiness of Iraqi security forces – were becoming more forceful, the British were in fact retreating into smaller and smaller bases. And this gave the city’s insurgents encouragement to fire daily barrages of katyusha rockets into those bases.
Red lines

Muhssen is tall, built like a wrestler with small, sharp eyes. We meet in one of Basra’s new cafes: modern but deliberately shabby. A plump teenager in a very short jeans skirt, tight blouse and high heels sways her way towards us, drops a menu on the table, then slumps back to the sofa to play with her phone. Another young woman in tight jeans brings us our coffees.

The scene comes as a shock in a city where modestly dressed women have been killed for offending its so-called “moral guardians”, and religious parties stifle public life.

“Don’t be amazed,” Muhssen says. “All these places are protected by the militias – not just cafes but travel agencies and car showrooms. Every month they give their protectors a gift.”
Iraqis gather at the site of a car bomb attack in Basra, October 2015, which killed more than 50 people.
Iraqis gather at the site of a car bomb attack in Basra, October 2015, which killed more than 50 people. Photograph: Haider Al-Assadee/EPA

Muhssen belongs to Iraq’s new generation of intelligence officers: young, educated and – supposedly – non-sectarian.

“We were 88 officers who joined the intelligence service after graduating from university; then we went through another four years of study. When we first came to Basra, we were full of zeal. We thought we will crush the gangs and the militias. But then we realised they are the prevailing powers in this city, not the government, so we withdrew. Even our bosses draw red lines that we should not cross; they know their own limitations.”

As in other corrupt, oil-rich countries, the wealth did not trickle down in Iraqi society, but rather created a new, kleptocratic class of militia commanders, party officials and clan leaders.

“Basra is run by mafias,” Muhssen says. “The head of the mafia is the city council: they divide the projects amongst them, and at every stage they have to be bribed. There are sharks that run the oil and electricity projects; if you stand against them, they will hit you. These are the tyrants of this city.”

According to Muhssen, two of the strongest clans in Basra, who until a few years ago ran extensive networks of oil smuggling tankers (and had some clan members as high-ranking commanders in the militias of Moqtada), are now major construction contractors in the city, working with international oil firms.
An artist’s impression of the proposed Bridal Tower in Basra, designed to be the world’s tallest building.
An artist’s impression of the proposed Bridal Tower in Basra, designed to be the world’s tallest building. Illustration: AMBS Architects

“When the state is weak and corruption is rife, the tribes become strong and the militias spread,” says Haji Abu Hassan, head of the security committee at Basra’s city council, and a former intelligence officer. “Some of the [Shia] battalions used the fight against Isis as a pretext to arm themselves and carry weapons – but then they sit here in Basra and never see the frontline. When you ask them why they are arming, they say they are waiting for the state to weaken – before they rip it apart.”

Muhssen says he came to realise that his strong physique, his gun and his rank meant nothing in the supposedly calm city of Basra. “When there is no respect for the state, no fear of the security forces, how will these people respect me?”

Before leaving, he points across the street. “Do you see that traffic policemen?”

A lone, middle-aged policeman in a uniform of white shirt, blue trousers and a white cap is directing traffic late into the night. Above him looms a massive bridge with its middle section missing, the construction company having stopped working for lack of funds.

“This is the only decent person working for the state,” Muhssen tells me, “because he is actually doing something. The rest of us are either corrupt, or intimidated.”

Sorgente: Basra after the British: division and despair in Iraq’s oil boomtown | Cities | The Guardian

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