Basra Explodes

With Salam Talib

The Iraqi Oil Ministry’s inspector general reported this week that $1 billion of Iraq’s oil is being illegally smuggled out of the country every month.

Smuggling on a large scale, coupled with increasing violence and the lack of basic services like water and electricity, has caused increasing tensions in the southern oil city of Basra. Over 100 civilians have been killed in Basra so far this month. Residents there 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 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 the helicopter,” explained As’aad Kareem, president of the Iraqi Oil Workers Union in Basra. “It was real resistance. They shot it down because the British were supporting the governor and shooting at the people at the demonstration. And the governor didn’t stop the British from bombing the demonstration, and so that’s his responsibility also.”

Amjad Ali al-Jawahary, the North American representative of the Iraqi trade union movement, told me frustration had been building in Basra before the violence broke out.

“I visited Basra last year and I’ve seen the piles – or mountains – of garbage in the city. 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 adds that the lack of water and electricity aren’t the only reasons for the tensions.

“The government in Baghdad was giving a lot of support and money to Basra, but the governor was misusing it, and that lead 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 are dead in the fighting. Fadil el-Sharaa, the spokesman for Shi’ite cleric Moqtada Sadr, says British forces and the governor want to blame the killings on sectarian conflict. But, he says, that’s not so.

“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. I think that as the Sadr movement, this kind of language is not responsible. 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 tr[ied] to solve the problem peacefully.”

But clashes with the governor’s office are not the only cause of violence in Basra. The national association of Sunni clergymen, 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 Shi’ite, wants to get rid of the Sunnis from there, and then the Sunnis strike back."

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’ll be bringing some of his troops home in August.