Basra (Camp Charlie), Asharq Al-Awsat- In light of the recent demonstrations calling for the resignation of Basra’s provincial governor, Mohammed al Waili, Asharq Al Awsat looks at the standard of living in Iraq’s second largest city and how the situation has changed in Basra since the American invasion in March 2003.
Few Iraqi citizens are content with the living conditions in the predominantly Shia cities and villages of south Iraq. It is fair to say that not much has changed in this city since before the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Fear is still a common factor to some degree in the city, not from the notorious intelligence agents under Saddam however, but from the “militias” that apparently interfere in matters of everyday life.
In the southern port of Umm Qasr, members of the security forces complain about the “militias.” “We were better off before these militias emerged on the scene. Now theft has increased in the port and security procedures are not applied properly allowing smugglers to bring their goods into Iraq,” complained one member of the security forces there. Speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of these militias, he added that a loyal man, a former Iraqi army colonel, is in charge of the security force in the port. The forces entered the port on a Friday accompanied by a British security force made up of 13 soldiers and 3 Land Rover Defenders. There has been no significant trade movement with the exception of the Jabal Ali ferry boat that regularly transported passengers and goods from Dubai four times a week. At the arrival terminal, passengers wait to board the boat in a matter of a few hours, along with shipping and custom clearance agents. Two women attend the Rasheed Bank counter inside the terminal. According to a port official, the one-pier port of Umm Qasr receives four large cargo ships that bring various goods, particularly food. However, work in the port continues only during the day and is stopped at night for security reasons. A number of 9,000 containers are scattered throughout the port, according to British Captain Gary Hedges, who indicated that the port authorities still waited for them to be claimed. Some of these containers were open and one of them contained empty cooking gas cylinders apparently to be melted for metal. There were two large yellow cranes that cost US$8 million and were paid for by the Belgian government. They are not in operation because, according to the British officer, no one knows how to operate them. The complaint made by the Iraqi security member in the port was also reiterated in the city of Umm Qasr, which demonstrates abject poverty. At the local market, some stores were open to customers on Friday, especially the restaurants selling Shawarma, vegetable and fruit pies and other foods, whilst swarms of flies hovered around and the smell of sewage dominated the air. Engineer Hasan al Maliki, not in any way related to Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki, he said laughingly, said he had to abandon his business with the British due to the “sensitivity” around dealing with the coalition forces, which are viewed as occupation forces. It seems that such sensitivity stems from the pressure exerted by local militias and religious parties. What astonishes al Maliki is that basic services, such as water, are lacking “despite numerous promises, as if we are still under Saddam.” The British, also, blame the militias for the military operations that target their troops. “The night we arrived at British Camp Charlie, opposite Basra International Airport, sirens went off at about 2:30a.m. In the morning, we found out that the militias killed four British soldiers and an Arab interpreter as they returned to the camp from a regular patrol in Basra.”
British Royal Engineering Corps Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Stratford-Wright believes that most of the anti-British attacks are carried out by an outlaw militia. In an interview at the camp, which is a constituent facility of a huge British military base, Stratford-Wright said that the British troops came under more attacks this year in comparison to the same period last year. He also believes that the spiraling attacks were due to several underlying factors, key of which was a decision made to increase anti-British operations and training these militias to launch attacks in response to the British forces’ role in combating kidnappings, robberies and other crimes, as well as making it difficult for the Iraqi government to hand over provinces to its central authority. The British forces handed over the southern provinces of Muthana and Dhi Qar to the Iraqi government and they are preparing to hand over the Iran-bordering province of Maysan. “Most people here [in the south] are armed and one party or another seems to have taken a decision to use these militias to carry out more attacks against the British,” Stratford-Wright pointed out. Britain is in command of an international force made up of Australian, Danish and Romanian troops and deployed in the four southern provinces. The 9,000-strong international force includes approximately 7,100 British troops.
Stratford-Wright continued, “We expect the Iraqi Prime Minister to announce the takeover of Maysan as the third southern province to be controlled by the central government very soon.” This handover plan is in line with London’s plans to reduce its troops to as low as 5,500 by the end of this year. Presently, the Muthana and Dhi Qar provinces are actually controlled by the Iraqi government, where Stratford-Wright pointed out that the role of the international forces is no more than “monitoring and support.”
Concerning the handover of the Basra province, Stratford-Wright said that this may be delayed slightly till the middle of the year; “however, that depends on how security conditions develop there. The decision will be made by the Iraqi Prime Minister.” Stratford-Wright confirmed that the Al Qaeda network was not present in the south, adding that it was active in the Sunni-dominated regions of Iraq where a bloody sectarian war is being fought between the Sunnis and the Shia. However, he said there was growing popular rejection of these militias, ascribing this dissatisfaction to the random bombing of targets by the militias with mortars and RPGs, “which often miss and land on populated areas.” Stratford-Wright said that the Basra palace base which currently accommodates 750 troops would be handed over to the Iraqi army next summer. The base is one of the four bases of the joint international force.
He pointed out that one such base was transformed into a joint base for the Iraqi army and police forces and the British forces. “We hope to hand over the Basra palace base by next August or September. Richard Jones, the British Consul General in Basra who has relocated his consulate to the military base for a few days, regarded the handover of security duties to the Iraqis as an “opportunity,” calling the growing influence of militias amongst the Iraqi police a “very serious problem.” He said that focus should now be directed at the provision of basic needs for the people of Basra. The coalition forces in southern Iraq seek to provide the population with basic services such as electricity, water, a sewage system and other necessities. Australian Lieutenant Colonel Peter Smith said that the coalition forces have spent US$ 583 million over the last three years on over 3,000 projects in the four southern provinces. “The population may not feel that services have improved. The reason is that we set up water plants, electric networks etc. but services do not reach the houses on account of procedural problems such as providing, for example, electricity and water meters by the government,” he added.