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Snipers And Sewage: Why Oil-Rich Basra Is A Symbol Of What's Wrong With Today's Iraq

Ten years after Saddam's fall, Iraq's richest city is rife with courruption and can't even clean up after itself.

Outside a shop in Basra
Outside a shop in Basra
Birgit Svensson

BASRA - Samarkand al-Juburi, an Iraqi poet, has just made the 450-kilometer trip south from the capital to Basra, and jumps under the shower to freshen up.

The water that comes out of the shower nozzle is salty. So is the water from the sink faucet. Later, at the Basra House of Culture, where she meets with fellow writers from Iraq’s third largest city and reads some of her poems, she finds out this is normal. It’s the same water problems all over Basra.

Some hotels and households have filters, but all they do is reduce the saltiness, not eliminate it. So drinking water in Basra has to be bought, and that’s expensive for the city’s two million inhabitants.

The reason for the salty water is flooding from the Persian Gulf into the Shatt al-Arab river that turns fresh water into salt water. The area’s crops and famous date palms are suffering along with residents – of the 30 million date palms that used to grow along the Shatt al-Arab only 12 million remain. Saddam Hussein bears part of the responsibility for this: he had countless trees felled or burned so that his troops had a clearer picture of what was happening on the opposite shore – in Iran – during the 1980-1988 war.

If Basra -- with its sandstorms and dry desert winds -- is one of the hottest places on earth, it’s also the richest Iraqi city and could easily afford proper drinking water, a permanent supply of electricity, paved streets, and a functioning garbage collection system. But not much works smoothly, and in the last decade all that’s been built are two bridges, a new hospital and another university campus. A sports complex called “Sports City” has been under construction for years and so far all deadlines that have been set for its completion have been missed.

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A man and woman make their way up the Shatt-al-Arab in Basra - Christiaan Briggs

The former Sheraton Hotel, which was damaged by bombs, plundered and then burnt, has now been entirely rebuilt, is the only 5-star hotel in Iraq that even begins to live up to that category. On the bank of the Shatt al-Arab River, the angular concrete building of what is now called the Basra International Hotel is surrounded by heaps of garbage, open sewers – and streets with potholes, some knee deep.

Watan Street, where there used to be movie theaters, nightclubs, and casinos, is now just a shadow of its former self, the old buildings empty and dilapidated. The cheesy Shawarma snack shops that have mushroomed here, and the mostly young men hanging out, do not make a good impression.

Where’s the money that Basra takes in daily? The city gets $1 dollar for every barrel of oil: at 2.25 million barrels a day, that’s $2.25 million. It will also be taking in money from the whole oil infrastructure, transport and distribution. Presently, up to 3 million barrels of Iraqi oil come onto the world market daily – the lion’s share from Basra and the rest from Kirkuk up north. That much oil hasn’t been pumped out of Iraqi soil for 30 years.

Saddam's deadly legacy

The city’s sorry state used to be blamed on Saddam Hussein. It was retaliation against the mostly Shiite inhabitants following their revolt against the dictator after the second Gulf war – a revolt that failed. Countless mass graves, some of which have to this day not been opened, bear silent witness to Saddam’s gruesome revenge. Baghdad also blocked investment in infrastructure and turned Basra into Iraq’s poorhouse.

When foreign troops moved in 10 years ago, Basra residents used the Shatt al-Arab River for both bathing and clothes washing. There were epidemics of cholera and diarrhea. All of this is largely a thing of the past, but Basra is still poor. A pharmacy owner on Watan Street says: “What’s holding up progress today is corruption.”

Iraq’s parliament in Baghdad had made a move to dismiss Minister for Youth and Sport Jassim Jaafar – a member of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's ruling coalition – who has been accused of corruption in conjunction with the building of the Basra Sports City, but failed to get enough votes in support of the dismissal. "They have each others’ backs,” fumes the outraged pharmacist.

Members of other parties have also been accused of filling their pockets in Basra. City residents demonstrated for years in an attempt to get a member of the small Shiite Fadhila Party, Basra’s former governor Mohammed al-Waili – also accused of big-time corruption – to step down, to no avail. He stayed put and was finally gunned down by unknown killers.

After Samarkand al-Juburi finishes her reading at the attractively renovated House of Culture in the old part of Basra, those present get into a discussion about the future of their city. Wistfully, some participants remember the days before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 when residents of the small oil emirate used to come to Basra to have a good time.

"They filled Watan Street and every weekend all hell would break loose," said one man. However, since clerics started having more say in Iraq, and particularly in Basra, something like that would now be unthinkable. Not a single shop in Basra sells alcohol anymore.

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Basra at night (Wikimedia)

When in 2003 the British took control of Basra, even bus drivers employed by the public transportation system were selling beer on buses to boost their meager salaries. But today anyone caught with alcohol in their car trunk during random checks gets slapped with a hefty penalty.

Many are pinning their hopes on the new governor, Khalaf Abdul Samad, who while a good friend of Prime Minister al-Maliki, is "only blind in one eye." People trust that he will at least stem the tide of corruption.

In one young poet’s view, religious hardliners – followers of Shiite cleric Muktada al-Sadr – don’t stand much of a chance in Basra any more. He believes Iraq is following a secular path.

Samarkand says she’s heard the new governor returned from exile in the Netherlands. "The Dutch have experience with water," she says optimistically. Along the Shatt al-Arab there are huge posters, some showing the new governor, others al-Maliki. Regional elections are coming up on April 20 – fostering new hope in Basra’s citizens

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