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Michael Jansen: Basra should be booming
August 03, 2018
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The US post-2003 order has been under challenge in Iraq from a new quarter: Shias who expected to benefit from Washington’s installation of a Shia fundamentalist regime in Baghdad. Thousands of Iraqis have stormed into the streets on Fridays to protest the lack of electricity and water, unemployment, corruption, mismanagement and Iranian interference in the country’s affairs. 

The protests began in Basra, the country’s second largest city with a population of 2.5 million, and spread to Maysan, Dhi Qar, Najaf, Karbala and the capital. Security forces have responded with tear gas, water cannons and live fire, killing at least 14 since July 8. 

 Southerners have launched the protests as they suffer from chronic power cuts and a lack of clean drinking water at a time when temperatures reach 48 degrees Celsius. The spark that lit the protests was Iranian reduction of electricity and fuel supplies, deepening power outages. Iran — which is also facing an economic crisis — has demanded back payment for both power and fuel.

 According to some commentators, Iran may be retaliating against the US for withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal by harming Iraq, a US ally. This is unlikely. Before the latest protests began, Iran’s popularity with Iraqis was low. Since Prime Minster Haider al-Abadi and other leading figures in the regime have long enjoyed the patronage of Iran, it is blamed for the government’s poor performance and rampant corruption. Therefore, Iran is unlikely to court further Iraqi alienation.

 In a bid to show itself as a friend of Iraq, Saudi Arabia has pledged to supply Basra with fuel to ease the crisis.

 The situation is complicated by a rebellion by oil field workers demanding better pay and by tribesmen demanding jobs in the oil fields which produce 70 per cent of Iraq’s crude oil. Tribesmen have warned they will “paralyse” the fields unless their demand is met. However, tribal leaders, international oil companies and local officials have, for years, colluded in corrupt deals costing tens of millions of dollars and depriving the Iraqi public of services. Dozens of people in Basra have been killed by racketeers. 

 Transparency International ranks Iraq the 18th most corrupt country in the world. While graft was widespread during the closing years of Baathist rule, corruption bloomed as soon as the US occupation regime took control. US fixers turned up with suitcases of cash to pay off officials, tribesmen, merchants and others. US officials awarded contracts to firms which offered commissions. Iraqi politicians grew wealthy on bribes from contractors. An Iraqi friend of mine scolded a relative who had become a multi-millionaire from graft. The government appointed Ahmed Chalabi, a businessman who bankrupted two banks, anti-corruption czar. 

Iraqis outside Baghdad suffered from neglect and divestment. Mosul in the north and Basra in the south were particularly hard hit. Consequently, Mosul fell to Daesh and Basra has been protesting for more than a decade without results.

 The port city of Basra was dubbed the “Venice of the Middle East” due to its attractive canals and waterways before war and want seized the city. Handsome two-storey buildings graced the banks of the canals, boats ferrying goods travelled along them. Tradition holds that Sinbad the Sailor — a character in the Arabian Nights — began his journey in Basra. Basrawis used to enjoy strolls along the banks of the Shatt al-Arab before stopping for coffee or tea at a traditional cafe.

 Basra should be booming as the province of the same name contains 200 billion barrels in reserves and is the centre of the oil industry. Instead, Basra swelters in the heat, its canals are filled with rubbish and sewage, abandoned ships grow rust in the harbour and fishermen smuggle catches from Iranian waters.

 Basra’s woes began with the 1980-88 war with Iran. The city became a battle ground and was constantly shelled. Residents fled, trade with Iran halted, ships were gutted at their moorings. Basra had just two years to recoup its fortunes before the US and UN imposed sanctions after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Basra was the first major city captured by US and allied forces during the 1991 war. Iraqi troops straggled in from Kuwait as Western powers bombed the south, using depleted uranium shells. Civilians, particularly children, were afflicted with cancer in far higher numbers than the incidence in the general population — which was also higher than usual.

 US President George H.W. Bush called on Iraqis to revolt against their government. Southern Shias and northern Kurds rebelled and were brutally crushed by the Iraqi army and security forces. Basra suffered fresh violence and destruction and, following the re-establishment of Baghdad’s rule, was neglected, the needs of its residents ignored. Basra’s fishing and trading boats were burnt; farms in its countryside had been reclaimed by the desert.

 In early 1999, Shia protests stirred by Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadeq al-Sadr spread across southern Iraq and erupted in the Shia slum in Baghdad. Following his assassination, Iran-stoked violence was put down by the army in Basra where US/UN imposed sanctions took their toll among the dwindling population.

 In 2003 US-led invaders marched from Kuwait through Basra, wreaking further destruction and death, looters stripped the university, public buildings, factories and shops because the Pentagon had fielded sufficient soldiers for the occupation but not enough to impose law and order. Al-Qaeda invaded the vacuum in Iraq; radical Shias, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, son of the slain ayatollah, fought the occupation.

 Shia Iraqis who had been in exile in Iran returned to Basra to govern the country but had no clue how to do it. Former Baathists and ex-administrators and officials were murdered.

 In Basra, instead of addressing the demands of the thousands of impoverished squatters who had settled on government land on the edge the city, the local administration built a sports stadium. Oil brought business to the city. Hotels, malls and car showrooms sprung up. House prices soared. 

 The price of a barrel of oil fell from $100 (Dhs367) to less than half that sum. Shia fundamentalist factions jockeyed for power while Britain and the US did nothing. Shia militias formed and set up protection rackets. Kidnapping flourished. Tribal mafias took over the city. 

 Baghdad has done nothing to counter them. Politicians are now wrangling over the result of the May 12 parliamentary election instead of forming a government that might deal with the country’s problems, although no post-2003 cabinet has shown itself ready to do so.

The “democratic” sectarian regime imposed by the US has failed miserably, particularly in the ex-Venice of the Middle East.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict


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