Basra, Iraq–It’s been a little over a year since I was last in Basra, and at first glance little has changed. The buildings are just as dilapidated, livestock still periodically cross the rubble-strewn streets, and the once beautiful canals remain clotted with trash. The heat, too, is the same, although the summertime onslaught of humidity that afflicts this southern port city–situated about 40 kilometers from the Arabian Gulf–is still months away.
Beneath the surface, though, this is not the easy-going municipality of 1.5 million people I recall. For one thing, I can no longer wander the streets, take a cab, or dine in restaurants for fear of being spotted as a foreigner: Kidnapping, by criminal gangs or terrorists, remains a lucrative business. Instead, for safety’s sake, I’m tied to my hotel, dependent on expensive drivers, unable to go anywhere without Iraqi escort. “You really shouldn’t be here at all,” a British-embassy official warned me.
After a week of cautiously exploring the city–usually with Layla, my friend, guide, and protector here in Basra–I noticed additional changes. For example, the plethora of religious imagery one used to find on the street has largely vanished. Gone are the glamorous posters of those Shia icons, Imams Ali and Hussain, and the broadsheets featuring fictitious renditions of Moqtada al-Sadr cradling his assassinated father. In their place are numerous billboards featuring the Iraqi flag, soldiers, and smiling children: advertisements for the new Iraqi state.
The reason for this apparent diminution of religious fervor is the mainstreaming of Shia political organizations. “After the elections, the Islamic parties seized control of Basra,” Layla explains. “Now they want to appear more respectable.” Indeed, all but six of the 41 seats on the province’s Governing Council are filled by a cluster of Islamic groups, such as Dawa Islamiyya, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and the up-and-coming Fadillah party–affiliated with Moqtada al al-Sadr–which scored a coup when one of its members became the provincial governor.
Another change is the number of abiyas you see around town. As the religious parties flex their muscles, their various sheikhs and imams exert a steady, if unlegislated, pressure on women to cover themselves in hejab. Layla once wore Western-style clothing and a scarf; now she has to add a thin black tunic to appease Basra’s guardians of female virtue. “If you don’t abide by their wishes, they will harass you on the street–or worse,” she complains.
“This has become an Iranian city,” contends Salaam Wendy, a Basra native who recently returned to his hometown for the first time since he fled to Canada in 1986. “In the ’70s and ’80s, you used to find bars, nightclubs, casinos–and no women wore hejab. Today, you can’t even find secular books or music CDs, the religious parties have such control of the city. This isn’t the place I remember.”
The shadow of religious fundamentalism falls across other areas, too. Take, for instance, Basra Province’s “elected” council, the first such body in the long history of the region. I put “elected” in quotes in deference to the cynicism of numerous Iraqis, who claim that the religious parties fixed the balloting: One young man who acted as a poll-watcher on January 30 told me how he saw party members direct voters to cast their ballots for the United Iraqi Alliance slate of Islamic candidates. The result is that many members of the Governing Council are party hacks with zero concept of democracy. Recently, I attended a workshop organized by the Research Triangle Institute, an American NGO. Ostensibly an all-day seminar in democratic principles, the program instead stressed simple, almost childlike concepts such as “understand that you are useful,” “be aware of your skills,” “compromise,” and–rather alarming, I thought–”be calm when you lose.” Alexis de Tocqueville this wasn’t.
“Before the elections, the Governing Council was appointed by educated elites who chose capable people,” former Basra governor Hassan Alrashidi griped to me at the meeting. “The elections have brought in people whose main qualifications are their loyalty to the religious parties.” Countering Alrashidi’s point was Ahmed al-Harazi, chief of RTI’s Local Governance Project for southern Iraq: “The West has had democracy for a thousand years, we’ve had it for two. I think we’re doing pretty good.”
Many Basrans would agree. Despite the manifold problems the city faces–for example, electricity is still three hours on, three off, and sewage remains a nightmare–a relaxed attitude seems prevalent here (at least for Iraqis–foreigners must always remain on guard). Part of it is the fabled geniality of the Basran people–something to do with the salubrious effects of warm weather and breezes off the Shatt-al-Arab waterway, which even Islamists can’t suppress. Part has to do with a realization that, compared to Baghdad, Basra is relatively stable.
Because of these factors, a palpable optimism is beginning to seize many people in the city’s more prosperous classes. “We have many economic advantages,” notes Zuhair Ali Akhbar, general manager of the Basra branch of the Iraqi Central Bank. “We are a port, we have oil, and date groves. I foresee in ten years, inshaallah, we will be a prosperous region along the lines of Dubai.”
This Basran equanimity even extends to that huge bone of Iraqi contention: foreign troops. True, you can find pro-Sadr graffiti that reads, “WAIT…WAIT…BRITISH JEWISH ARMY AL MAHDI WILL DESTROY,” and numerous residents complain of summary arrests, imprisonment, and physical abuses of civilians by U.K. forces. Generally, though, the Brits–who patrol the city in lightly armored vehicles–are tolerated, and in some quarters, liked. “Our relations with the British are very good,” remarks SCIRI spokesman Alaa Tarej. “We believe they are helping the Iraqi people.”
As for America, the general feeling is gratitude for the removal of Saddam, tempered by disappointment in the slow progress of Iraq’s reconstruction. “America rid of us of one tyrant, only to give us hundreds more in the form of terrorists,” commented one man in Umm Qasr, a port city on the Kuwaiti border. Still, I’ve encountered some odd pockets of pro-American sentiment. Salaam Wendy says his mother, who has lived in Basra her whole life, frequently exclaims, “I’d like to kiss the feet of every soldier, British and American, who came to liberate us.” His brother goes even further: “George Bush is an angel.” And while many people express a wish to see America leave, they stress that the U.S. must stay until the terrorists are defeated.
But those are Shia voices. As for Basra’s Sunni population, many adopt a different attitude. Recently, I spent an afternoon in a mosque in Old Basra, listening to a Sunni sheikh denounce America. The insurgents, he informed me, are patriots struggling to free their country from foreign occupation. The U.S. has long hungered to dominate Iraq and steal its oil, whether by putting Saddam into power, engineering the Iran-Iraq and Kuwaiti wars, or launching an illegal invasion of the country. Today, the U.S. is not only behind the terrorist bombings of Shia religious centers, it has also created a fictitious enemy named al-Zarqawi to justify its repressive tactics. Even the rise of crime is the work of U.S. policy, which seeks to brutalize and coarsen the Iraqi temperament. Do the Iraqi people not share some responsibility for these catastrophes? “No,” replied the sheikh. “They are America’s fault. Before America meddled in our affairs, Iraqis were warm, peace loving people.”
Few people here go that far in ascribing blame to the U.S. or its allies. Still, there is a feeing of helplessness, bordering for some on a sense of futility, among nearly all Basrans. They know their city has great, if untapped, potential. Yet at the same time, even after the fall of Saddam, the historic Iraqi elections and the billions of dollars poured into their region by American and British governments, in addition to the U.N. and numerous NGOs, they have seen little effect in their daily lives–water is still bad, electricity spotty, gas lines intolerable. “How can this be? We should be rich!” Saad, a former translator for the British army exclaimed to me. “Where is the money going, why is nothing happening? Tell your readers,” he added in a distraught tone, “that we are willing to work to make Basra beautiful again–but we need their help, we need the world’s help.” So it is throughout the city on the banks of the Shatt-al-Arab. Basrans can almost see the arrival a better and more prosperous tomorrow, but for now, that bright future is frustratingly, inexplicably, just beyond their reach.
–Steven Vincent is a freelance investigative journalist and art critic living in New York City. He is blogging about Iraq at www.redzoneblog.com.