The paradox of Basra

Linked with Mary Kaldor – England.

Published on openDemocracy, by Mary Kaldor, Jan. 13, 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 …

… 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? (full long text).

Read also: Secure Afghanistan, Dec. 11, 2008.

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