July 19, 2004

Postcard from Basra

B.D.'s Baghdad correspondent headed south to Basra over the past few days.

We don't hear too much about Basra--there isn't much of a press corp down there and it appears relatively quiet compared to the Fallujahs and Ramadis.

But it's Iraq's second largest city and provides a window into what direction a more Shi'a-centric part of the country is heading.

The view from Basra, frankly, doesn't make for particularly cheery reading.

Put differently--in terms of constructing a viable democracy in Iraq--the phrase "generational committment" again comes to mind reading the below.

And also how Iran, on so many levels, is shaping up to be such a major factor on the American foreign policy radar in the coming months and years.

It will take more time to lay my finger on what precisely it is that is remarkable about Arabian evenings—the sunset, the tranquility before and after prayer and the variously-charged stirrings on the just-cooled and now darkened street illuminated here and there by red-covered lanterns—but until that moment arrives, suffice it to say that remarkable they are.
This is true in Basra, along the bank of the Shatt-al-Arab, where rusted steamers are tied at rest diagonally, gunwhale-to-gunwhale, and children play soccer in dusty lots along the shore. One can smell the Persian Gulf, though it lies at least one hundred kilometers to the south along this wide and oft-contested canal. After two months in Baghdad, here there is a sense, deceptive though it may be, of calm.
Landing at Basra airport, set back in the desert, things seemed downright sleepy and after shaking off the disjointed neck cramps that result from a spiral descent, blown off course at points by the wind, one feels as though one’s been dropped onto the set of a genre Western movie. The same wind that knocked the tiny plane of its corkscrew course rattles the halyards against the steel of barren flagpoles, save the one which flies the Iraqi colors.
Absent only the tumbleweed, one walks through the almost empty terminal, by British soldiers made listless by the damp heat. No traffic for miles, one’s forced to hike down the road a fur piece until a bus, or half-empty lorry of sympathetic British troops, comes along to take one to the main gate checkpoint. There one meets one’s escort, who shrugs with amusement at the body armor lugged down the burning road, and it is thrown with everything else into the trunk. “How can you tell the difference between the face of Khomenei and that of Al Sadr?” I naively asked a companion in Sadr City on my first visit to Iraq four months ago. Khomenei looks mean, my companion answered without so much as a thought. Those mean, black, piercing eyes shot out menacingly today from lamp-posts in the city, and noticing my noticing them, my escort sighed and muttered something about dogs. We rip them down, but they keep getting put back up, he said.
Imagine a New York City precinct station on any number of the TV series that dominated the airwaves through the seventies and eighties but seem to have gone out of fashion after “Law & Order,” and you begin to get the feel of Basra City Hall. You just have to substitute the crew of extras with bearded men shouldering or otherwise fondling Kalshnikovs, through in a touch on 19th Century Tammany Hall and adapt wardrobe accordingly and quadruple the cast to get the full picture. City Hall is the center of action here, because this is where business is done, and all types come to be heard. On a city map laid over the council chairman’s conference table, there are a series of busy dots and lines indicating the aerial view of Iraq’s second largest city. On the other side of the river, though, the view is blank because it is Iran.
“Focus on the Islamic parties,” the chairman counseled, after giving me a few minutes after I duly waited my turn in a room full of petitioners, “because if you don’t, and spend all your time focusing on the non-existent parties in the middle, you’ll just make the radicals that much stronger.” And so, with two exceptions—one being a circumspect and wise university dean I called on next and the other being the Iraqi Communist Party—I did just that. Unfortunately, the dean may be ahead of his time and the communists, well…
Bearing a letter of introduction from the Baghdad headquarters, I managed to cause a small degree of confusion in the local office of a party whose name espoused the virtue of Islamic revolution—a poorly kept frat house of militia-men on the mend (?) located in a quarter of the city where the sewage systems didn’t seem to be functioning. With a wrinkled forehead belying real consternation, the door guard led me to a side-room for vetting. The deputy who then arrived for debriefing sported a well-worn polo short with the word “Meksiko” mis-spelled over his left breast. A classic radical, he was earnest and shared my irritation when a man with a machine gun kept coming into the room to make sure everything was in order and, on seeing us hunched over a laptop in mid-sentence, grinning sinisterly before exiting. On the wall over his head was a poster of Khomenei which I’d not yet seen, looking a little more benevolent than the others plastered about town, and advising, in Arabic as opposed to Farsi, “America: the Cause of All That is Wrong with the World.”
One bizarre sight (and we are speaking in relative terms here) that caught my eye on a ride through downtown Basra was a two-story dragon perched on the roof of a small house, behind it what appeared to be a miniature golf course. At one point, this actually had been an amusement park for children, my bodyguard confirmed, but it had since been taken over by something called the “Muslim Foundation Association,” a small, new party that just crossed the river and seized the place. Better not to stop in un-announced, he suggested. Better not to stop in at all.
There had to be some little island of sanity here, I hoped. During a final visit to the interim Prime Minister’s party, I began to feel relieved. A secular party made up of returned expatriates who had fled—like many of the Islamicists—because of their opposition to Saddam Hussein. Now in the unenviable position of governing Iraq, the party boss struck me as actually getting it. Parties build support among regular people, try and make life better, occasionally hand out a few spoils. But they work on uniting, on governing—or aiming to do so—and on un-ending outreach to people of all kinds brought together by a common belief.
On my way out, this ephemeral feeling of elation paused as I heard a young boy crying in downstairs reception room. What on God’s green earth is going on in there?! I asked my host, who shrugged, non-chalantly. On investigation, it turned out a circumcision had just occurred. In a party headquarters?!? There is a clear benefit in doing some things early, but occasionally circumstances don’t allow that luxury. You do the best with what you’ve got, and I suppose, odd though it may seem, this fell into the rubric of community service.
You can’t leave Basra without thinking about the river that makes the map so intriguing. Saddam and the Ayatollah fought a bloody, eight year war over who should control it. In the desert, water takes on a new, powerful significance. Travelers and nomads buy excessive quantities of it when they have the chance, much as they do petrol here in one of the most prospective, untapped oil reserves in the world. Tomorrow’s riches have little bearing on today, when you’re thirsty or out of gas. Surrounded here, on the southern tip of Iraq, by three fine states—Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia—you can only hope that things will get better. When you think about this in terms of potential alone, perhaps—just maybe—it will. Concluding the opposite, by default, doesn’t leave us much room to maneuver.
Posted by Gregory at July 19, 2004 09:44 AM
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