Monday, March 31, 2008

Battered Basra

This map is from News Guardian and, to the best of my judgement, covers the area on the southern bank of the Shatt-al-Arab where I was stationed as an 18 to 20 year old during my National Service. See here for the larger version.

I lived in Basra for 20 months in 1955 and 1956. I was undertaking my National Service in the RAF and was a Movement Units Clerk stationed in a small camp on the banks of the Shatt-al-Arab river. Our camp was surrounded by a much larger camp which initially accommodated Iraqi Levies, who were Iraqi Troops under the control of British Officers. When this force were disbanded as part of the arrangements under what was called the Baghdad Pact, they were replaced by the Iraqi Army.

I moved about the area freely, both as part of my work and in my spare time. I regularly visited the railway marshalling yards, the docks, the railway station, ships anchored in the river, the Anglican Church (until I became an atheist), the town centre (with a weekly visit to its English Book Shop) and even took a trip down the Shatt-al-Arab to the Fao Peninsula on a Navy Frigate to play for our camp cricket team against the English management at the oil terminal. I visited the nearby RAF camp at Shiaba and went back and forth by rail to Baghdad on visits to the RAF camp at Habbaniyah (where the vehicle I then travelled in from the Capital passed through Fallujah.)

These activities gave me regular contacts with Iraqis, which was supplemented by the fact that we were outnumbered on the camp by locals from Basra who worked mainly as clerks and in a variety of labouring jobs.

In all of this time, I only ever heard one shot fired in anger. An Iraqi Army soldier escaped from their prison and dived into the Shatt-al-Arab. Those pursuing him took a pot shot from the banks, but missed.

As anyone reading this blog will know I try to follow the current developments in Iraq closely. This is especially the case with the current situation in Basra. I observed Basra and its river from the air in April 2006 when flying from Erbil in Northern Iraq to Dubai in the Gulf, trying to work out where my old camp had been situated. I have also had the privilege of meeting Trade Union leaders from Basra both in Erbil and in meetings in this country at the TUC and the Commons.

Below is an extract from an item in yesterday's Observer which brings the situation home to readers at the personal level. Given current circumstances and my age, it is hard for me to imagine that I will ever again set foot in Basra. But one has to live in hope, especially for the future well-being of the Iraqi people.

From "Trapped in their homes, families fall victim to sickness and hunger" by Arif Sarhan in Basra.

It took eight years for Nur Muhammad, 35, finally to fall pregnant with the child she desperately wanted. Last week, Ali, her pride and joy, became the youngest victim of the upswing in violence.

The four-month-old baby boy fell ill last Monday with a fever, the day fighting broke out in Basra, the second-biggest oil city of Iraq. The street where the family lives became a battlefield, imprisoning them in their home, unable to get help.

'The disease spread so fast. My husband tried to leave our home to look for help but he was shot in his leg in front of our house,' Muhammad said. 'My only child was seriously sick and I also had to look after my injured husband. I was forced to use a knife sterilised with a lighter to take the bullet from his leg.'

No one was able to reach the house with medicine or food until Friday afternoon. Ali had died in the morning. 'It took me a few hours to realise my son had become an angel. He was shining and had a smile on his face,' she said. 'I waited all my life to have my baby and now a ridiculous political fight for supremacy took him away from me.'

Muhammad, tears streaming down her hollow cheeks, was in deep shock. 'I don't have a reason to live anymore. My husband threatened to divorce me if I didn't give him a child and now I doubt he will stay married to me now that Ali has been taken.'


rwendland said...

Seems Iran was integral to sorting out a Shia-Shia ceasefire, according to CNN: "Iraqi Shiite lawmakers traveled Friday to Iran to meet with al-Sadr. They returned Sunday, the day al-Sadr told his Mehdi Army fighters to stand down." Iraqi MoD commander said that "he hoped the mission [in Basra] would be brief and limited".

"movement of people was almost back to normal in the center of [Basra]"

Will the U.S. be pleased, or has this thwarted a plan? Will we thank Iran?

HatTip: Dr. Barnett R. Rubin

Harry Barnes said...

Rewendland : As Iran opposed the distorted Sunni position of the Taliban, I can understand why it acted in ways which assisted the US in Afganistan. Why Iran would now press al-Sadr to halt military attacks on Iraqi and American forces is worth considering. It is unlikely to be for humanitarian reasons. It could partly be to undermine the position of those in the Bush Administration who favour a military strike against Iran. But it is more likely to be because of fears of what the conflict will do inside Iraq itself. Such fighting could be seen (a) as driving the Sunni and Americans closer together (with a wider impact in the Region) and (b) seriously dividing the Iraqi Shia (even aiding an amount of secularism) and thus underming Iranian influences. Thanks for the sources.

rwendland said...

Another interesting source is a NYT reporter-stringer who gives an interesting account of getting into Basra. His conclusion was "There was nowhere the Mahdi either did not control or could not strike at will."

Harry Barnes said...

Rwendland : Thanks once more. This is an alternative analysis of who was up to what and why -