In Basra, Anniversary Marked by Disappointment
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
Three years after the U.S. invasion, one if Iraq's largest cities, Basra, is beset by disappointment and fear. Situated in the overwhelmingly Shiite south, there is little of the sectarian violence now common in Baghdad, and there are rarely car bombs, but assassinations are on the rise. The enemy in Basra is harder to identify and often closely associated with competition among Shiite military groups, many of whom are linked to mainstream religious political parties and tribes.
NPR's Anne Garrels has this report.
Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)
ANNE GARRELS, reporting:
Sixty-year-old old Eune Chasa(ph), a tiny woman in a black robe rummages through mounds of garbage that carpet the entire city. Her husband was killed in the Iran-Iraq War. To support herself, she collects plastic bags she can resell, earning about 50 cents a day.
(Soundbite of truck)
Nearby, another woman lays rotten vegetables at the side of a busy road. She scavenged them at the main market. She uses beat-up scales to sell them here, by the ounce. She, too, is a widow.
Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) I don't have anyone to support me. My husband and my brothers were all executed by Saddam.
GARRELS: After Saddam invaded neighboring Iran in 1980, Basra was on the front lines and a frequent target of Iranian gunners. Then in 1991, there were U.S. bombs. When the Shiites of Basra rose up to challenge the regime later that year, Saddam's forces cracked down, killing thousands more.
(Soundbite of baby fussing)
GARRELS: Many, like 30-year-old Eune Ali(ph), the mother of seven, sought refuge with fellow Shiites in Iran.
Ms. EUNE ALI (Iraqi widow): (Through translator) We used to live in the marshland before Saddam attacked us and burned our houses. We stayed in Iran for 13 years.
GARRELS: She and many others returned to Basra three years ago when Saddam was overthrown. Her mother-in-law, Badreia(ph), is bitter.
Ms. BADREIA (Ms. Eune Ali's Mother-in-Law): (Through translator) We have no compensation, we have no jobs. We fought in the resistance to Saddam, but our political leaders have forgotten us. It is because of us they now have their high positions, but they do nothing for us.
GARRELS: Anger at the religious political parties didn't stop Shiites here from voting for them again in December. Secular parties fared poorly. Secular politician, Mufed Mushahae blames the U.S.
Mr. MUFED MUSHAHAE (Secular politician, Iraq): (Through translator) I would like to thank President Bush for toppling Saddam, but the Americans have wreaked havoc here. If I could speak to President Bush, I would ask for humanitarian asylum because there is no humanity here now.
GARRELS: After the U.S. led invasion, Basra was seen as the future economic engine of Iraq, a city whose natural resources could make it rival the wealthiest cities that dot the Persian Gulf. But little has been done to improve the crumbling infrastructure.
Though it sits on a sea of oil, those riches are not evident; the city is awash in sewage, which collects everywhere in fetid pools. There's no system of garbage collection. Electricity is only now what it was before the war, which even then, was far from adequate. Sayeed Bahaa Al Deen is a respected moderate cleric, who's kept his distance from political parties.
Mr. SAYEED BAHAA AL DEEN (Moderate Cleric): (Through translator): Many are contributing to the injustice against the people of Basra: the central government and the political parties. There has been no investment, people have lost all hope that any improvement will take place.
GARRELS: A senior Iraqi official, who asked his name not be used because he fears for his life, confirms Islamist political parties are involved in smuggling, gun running, corruption, and assassinations. Last May, the Basra police chief said publicly, half of his more than 12,000 forces belonged to militias, and that he trusted only a fourth of his officers.
Dr. Ali Al Sammari, a professor at Basra University, says nothing has changed since then.
Dr. ALI AL SAMMARI (Professor, Basra University): The real law, unfortunately, are the militias now, and this is the situation in so many Iraqi towns.
Dr. AL SAMMARI: (Speaking foreign language)
GARRELS: Dr. Ali Al Sammari's English fails him. He slips into Arabic, concluding that while Iraq security forces need to be free from parties or militias and loyal to the state, that is not the case.
Dr. Sajed Hamed, Dean of Basra's law school, is afraid to speak openly.
Dr. SAJED HAMED (Dean, Law School): (Through Translator) We are freer now in some regards, but we have to pay attention to political parties. There is pressure. We try to avoid them. We can't talk freely.
GARRELS: Ask the political parties, and they deny they have malicious or anything to do with the violence.
Sheikh KHALIL AL-MALAKI (Spokesman for Muqtada Sadr): (In Farsi)
GARRELS: Sheikh Khalil al-Malaki, the Basra spokesman for radical cleric Muqtada Sadr, insists the organization has been reformed, and Sadr's militia here is now a cultural-education institution. He says men in the militia's hallmark black clothes are, in fact, British soldiers in disguise. The local leader of the prominent political party SCIRI, The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, denies its Iranian trained militia is a source of trouble. He, too, blames the British who are responsible for the Basra region.
Sheikh AL-MALAKI: (Through Translator) We believe they can prevent violence if they want to. Maybe it's hard for them to coordinate with Iraqis, or perhaps they don't think stability is in their interests.
GARRELS: Criticism of the British is increased. Responding to the popular pressure, Basra's provincial council voted last month to sever ties with the British troops. The final straw was a release of a video shot in 2004 depicting British soldiers beating Iraqi boys. English teacher, Iman Abdul Majid, once welcomed the U.S.-led coalition.
Ms. IMAN ABDUL MAJID (English Teacher): They promised us to (Unintelligible) our country, to help us, to make our circumstances better, but we didn't see anything. I don't trust them.
GARRELS: And residents say the less confrontational approach of the British they once praised, has made them slow to recognize the militia's growing influence and brutality. British troops recently launched a comprehensive effort to rehabilitate the police force, similar to U.S. efforts further north. Citing improvements, the British are going to cut their force levels from 8,000 down to 7,000.
Many in Basra are quick to call an end to what they term an occupation that has worn out its welcome. But many, like teacher Iman, don't want them to leave just yet.
Ms. MAJID: They shouldn't leave today. First, they should help us, then they should leave.
GARRELS: Independent cleric Sayid Bahir Hadeen(ph) fears a vacuum if the U.S. and British leave too quickly.
Mr. SAYID BAHIR HADEEN (Independent Cleric): (Through Translator) Unfortunately, we are surrounded by countries that don't want what is good for the Iraqi people. This is our reality. This is the bitter fact: the neighboring countries are primarily responsible for what is happening.
GARRELS: He says Iran, just a few miles away, is only one source of instability. Three years after Saddam was overthrown, chemistry Professor Ali al-Samari(ph) says he thanks God if he just survives the day.
Professor ALI AL-SAMARI (Chemistry Professor): (In Farsi)
GARRELS: Three years after the U.S. invaded, he says his dreams and aspirations turned out to be much greater than what's been achieved.
Ann Garrels, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Isra Abdel Hadi(ph) and Kais al Jalili(ph) contributed to this report. Photos from Basra and more stories on the three year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War are at our website, npr.org.
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