BAGHDAD – Basra in the south of Iraq is beginning to splinter under increasing violence and sectarian divisions.
Smuggling of oil on a large scale coupled with increasing violence and the lack of basic services like water and electricity has caused increasing tensions in the city, 570km south of Baghdad. More than 100 civilians have been killed in Basra so far this month.
Residents are pointing the finger at the governor and the British military, which occupies the city.
Before the recent spate of killings, Basra had a reputation as one of the most peaceful cities in occupied Iraq. The British military whose 8,000 soldiers in Iraq control Basra were considered by many to be more humane than their American counterparts.
But when thousands of residents took to the streets earlier this month to protest high unemployment and corruption in the governor’s office, the British attacked the demonstrators with helicopters. Fighters responded.
"They shot down a helicopter," As’aad Kareem, president of the Iraqi oil workers union in Basra told IPS. "It was real resistance. They shot it down because the British were supporting the governor and shooting at the people in the demonstration. And the governor didn’t stop the British from bombing the demonstration, and so that’s his responsibility also."
"I visited Basra last year and I’ve seen the piles or mountains of garbage in the city," said Amjad Ali al-Jawahary, North American representative of the Iraqi trade union movement. He said frustration had been building in Basra before the violence broke out.
"The sewage system is destroyed. The water system is not adequate. Even clean water is not there. Electricity is not up to expectations. At that time you were getting three hours a day. Now you’re getting 30 minutes or one hour a day, which is way, way worse than before."
Kareem said lack of water and electricity are not the only reasons for the tensions. "The government in Baghdad was giving a lot of support and money to Basra, but the governor (Mohammed al-Waili) was misusing it, and that led to violence and a lot of strikes, including walkouts by the military and police," he said.
So far, at least seven British soldiers and 100 Iraqi civilians have been killed in this round of fighting.
Fadil el-Sharaa, spokesman for Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr, says British forces and the governor want to blame the killings on sectarian conflict.
But that is not the case, he said. "What happened in Basra is that Ayatollah al-Sistani’s representative talked about the corruption created by the governor and his administration, which caused the governor to say that the religious offices were responsible for all the violence in Basra and that we are dividing people against themselves.."
The Governor is from the Shia Islamist Fadhila Party, but he has been denounced by many in the party, including founder and spiritual leader Mohammed Yakoubi.
El-Sharaa added: "They should be more responsible in their proclamations.. Now the problem has been solved by the Sadr office. We sent our representative to Basra, and we held a meeting of the two groups and tried to solve the problem peacefully."
But clashes with the governor’s office are not the only cause of violence in Basra.. The Sunni group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, complained this week that 1,200 Sunni Arab families from the oil city have been forced out.
"They are getting abducted and killed on a daily basis," Jawahary said of Basra’s Sunni population. "Just recently, 18 people were abducted, and they found them dead somewhere else. The head of one of the tribes was killed. The governing council, which is primarily Shia, wants to get rid of the Sunnis from there, and then the Sunnis strike back."
According to a United Nations report released this week, at least 2,500 were killed in Iraq in March and April, while 85,000 were forced to flee their homes..
Citing statistics supplied by the International Organization for Migration, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) stated that 14,302 families had been displaced since the Feb. 22 bombing of the shrine in Samarra.
The report further noted that the destinations of the displaced families break along sectarian lines, with Sunnis from the south heading to Anbar, Salaheddin and Diyala provinces, and Shias leaving Baghdad and Kirkuk heading to the southern provinces.
Amid all this, the prime minister of Denmark, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, paid a visit to Basra this week. Denmark has 535 troops stationed in Basra. As part of his visit, the Danish leader announced he will be bringing some of his troops home later this summer.
Salam Talib contributed to this report.
(Inter Press Service)