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Basra Residents Protest Deteriorating Security

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Basra Residents Protest Deteriorating Security

Iraq

Basra Residents Protest Deteriorating Security

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

Thousands of Iraqis in the southern city of Basra took to the streets this weekend to protest deteriorating security. Residents are fed up with killings and kidnappings, and they are demanding the police chief's resignation. The city of Basra basically has been on its own since September when British forces moved to the outskirts and handed over authority to local leaders.

NPR's Anne Garrels joins us. She's in Baghdad. Anne, first of all, what can you tell us about what triggered, which is a pretty rare, public protest in Basra?

ANNE GARRELS: Well, there's general dissatisfaction with the security situation. But specifically in Basra, there have been a lot of killings and kidnappings of professionals, like doctors and academics. And there have been attacks on women. Last year more than 100 women were murdered, apparently because they were wearing Western clothing or behaving in ways that were offensive to religious extremists.

Residents blame the police for not doing enough, but - and also for being party to much of the violence. In a recent interview, the local army division commander said the police force in Basra is basically just a bunch of militias. And he said they'd been kidnapping soldiers, his own soldiers, more than 50 of them, for ransom.

So, I mean, you can imagine how bad the situation is between the police and the army.

HANSEN: Can you tell what's behind all of this violence?

GARRELS: Well, it's basically a fight for power. But in Basra the interesting thing it's not sectarian. Basra's overwhelmingly Shiite with very few Sunnis. But what you've got is a fight for power and money, and here it's between competing Shiite groups. These political parties - there are almost two dozen of them - and their militias are fighting for Basra's oil wealth and the profits from this key port city.

And the residents are saying, hey, there is economic potential here but we're not seeing any of it. Just as in the rest of the country, ordinary Iraqis aren't seeing any signs the government is investing in infrastructure or services.

HANSEN: So do you think the events in Basra may be an indication of what could happen when coalition forces are drawn down or removed elsewhere?

GARRELS: It would appear so. And certainly a lot of observers are alarmed that, you know, about what's happening in Basra because it had a lot going for it. It didn't have sectarian problems. It's got oil in a port and economic potential. But the experiment in self-rule doesn't look promising at the moment.

And, you know, when the British handed over control they acknowledged the situation wasn't perfect, but they said it was manageable. And clearly the residents coming out by the thousands on the streets don't see it as manageable.

But I should point out they want the British troops back in the city. They don't see that as a solution.

HANSEN: You know, the anniversary, the fifth anniversary of the U.S. presence in Iraq is coming up. Take a bit of an assessment. To what degree do you think Iraqi forces are able to control the country now?

GARRELS: Well, as it is now they can't, and they acknowledge it as much. The defense minister has said it's going to be at least another four years before the army can control internal security. And another 10 before the armed forces can control outside threats.

The army is improving but it's still totally dependent on the U.S. for logistics, for air support, and, you know, as we've described, the police force in general is riddled with corruption and with militias. It's better than it was a year ago but, you know, still it's not a good situation.

HANSEN: NPR's Anne Garrels speaking to us from Baghdad. Anne, thanks very much.

GARRELS: Thank you.

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