|Filed November 3, 2002 By Jeremy Scahill
|BASRA—Iraq's southern oil-belt is
preparing for what many here see as an inevitable massive attack
by Washington. Small military bunkers, equipped with sandbags, barbed
wire fences and machine guns line the long stretch of highway heading
north out of Basra, Iraq's second largest city. Army soldiers stand
guard on large concrete walls, stretching around military garrisons.
For hundreds of years, Basra was called the Venice of the East.
Sinbad the Sailor's adventures were launched from its shores. The
city is connected by a web of footbridges and canals that empty
into the Shatt Al Arab, a focal point of the Arab sea trade for
more than 1300 years. It endured both Ottoman and British occupation
and, more recently, 20 years of war.
From morning until night, the waterfront is crowded with the hustle
and bustle befitting the country's main port. Fishermen and ships
line the boardwalk that houses 101 towering, individual bronze statues,
each representing an Iraqi Army soldier killed during the Iran-Iraq
war. Each of the figures is unique and contains intricate details
on the faces of each of the men. They stretch down the boardwalk for
a mile, all of them with their arms raised, fingers pointing accusingly
toward the Iranian border, some 6 miles to the east. Over the last
few months, amid threats from Washington, the soldiers have been given
a new coat of black paint.
|The Shatt Al-Arab in Basra, Iraq, provides
the city's main access to the Gulf of Arabia. Photo by Thorne
Young boys sit at the base of the statues, selling cigarettes and
imitation Pepsi and 7-up. Old men play dominoes on cardboard boxes,
as ships move along the canal. But the statues serve as a haunting
reminder that Basra has long ceased to be thought of as anyone's Venice.
The city's strategic location at the mouth of the Shatt Al-Arab, one
of the most ancient and busiest trade routes of the Middle East, has
doomed the city.
Basra has been one of the most fought-over areas in the world. It's
a stones throw from both Iran and Kuwait and suffered tremendously
during both the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War. Many buildings along
the boardwalk remain riddled with bullet-holes. Though war has not
been declared on Iraq, Washington's warplanes regularly bomb in and
around the city under the guise of so-called no-fly zones. Officially,
the Bush administration says the planes are there to protect the Shi'ite
Muslims from the forces of the central government. But no one in Basra
says the missiles make them feel safer. These zones have no basis
in international law and were never authorized by any body of the
United Nations. Baghdad says that more than 1,300 civilians have been
killed in these attacks.
|On the waterfront in Basra, Iraq, 101
statues point accusing fingers towards Iran, six miles away,
in memory of Iraqis killed during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980's.
With the exception of one statue of Iraqi president, Saddam
Hussein, the statues are each sculpted in the image of an actual
soldier killed in the fighting. The entire installation has
recently received a new coat of paint. Photo by Thorne Anderson.
Throughout Basra, people are paying very close attention to what is
happening at the UN Security Council in New York. Many a street corner
houses a gathering of older men huddled around transistor radios.
In addition to the state radio broadcasts, they also get BBC, Radio
Monte Carlo and other Arabic language foreign broadcasts. This is
certainly true throughout Iraq as well, but in Basra people know that
they are likely to be living in a major frontline of any "new" war.
This, coupled with the regular sound of air-raid sirens and bombings,
has caused many residents to have nervous breakdowns. Several people
we spoke with, particularly women, reported having severe emotional
and psychological problems sparked by the sound of American and British
jets. While people are generally well informed on the current developments
and haggling at the UN, no one rules out a surprise attack from Washington.
Throughout Iraq, Disaster Preparedness Teams are training for responding
to a US attack. An Iraqi who is working on these teams in the south
told Iraqjournal.org that weekly meetings are being held and "pick-up"
routes are being plotted to gather members of the disaster teams in
various areas in the event of bombings. "Disseminators" from the teams
are holding workshops in factories, schools and union halls to educate
people on such things as how to cope with a total absence of clean
drinking water in the event that water treatment plants are targeted
as they were in 1991. Separate from this, several people said that
courses are also being conducted in "civil-defense" to prepare for
the possibility of a ground invasion.
|On the streets of Jumurriyah neighborhood
in Basra, Iraq, raw sewage collects in open air. Social services
in Jumurriyah are severely impaired by U.N. sanctions led. Spare
parts for electricity and sanitation services as well as service
contracts for the installation of essential equipment are have
been placed on hold by United States representatives on the
sanctions committee. Though sanitation services are slowly improving,
there is fear that a new war will shut down the few remaining
sewage pumps as they were shut down in the first Gulf War. Photo
by Thorne Anderson.
Indeed, in several rural locations outside of Basra, we saw what appeared
to be armed civilian militias. Men riding on trucks or gathered on
roadsides, dressed in traditional Iraqi garments carrying automatic
weapons. Already, most Iraqi households have guns†and not just pistols.
Several non-military people have boasted to us that they have M-16s
or other machine guns in their homes.
This would seem to contradict the Bush administration's assertion
that the Iraqi government sees its own population as a great threat.
The weapons are certainly in circulation for an uprising. But if the
government viewed this as a danger to its stability, it could easily
ban the possession of guns by private citizens. What is clear is that
the government knows well that regardless of what people think of
Saddam Hussein, they intend to fight a foreign occupier.
What is also significant is that these armed militias are in the south
of Iraq, one of the areas touted by the Bush administration as a potential
hotbed of anti-government activity in the event of a US attack. In
1991, after the Gulf War, Shi'ite guerrillas in the south heeded "Big
Bush's" call for the Iraqis to take matters into their own hands.
For days, a bloody rebellion ensued, resulting in the execution and
torture of members of the Ba'ath Party and other people considered
to be "collaborators." Despite numerous appeals for assistance from
the Bush administration, Norman Schwartzkopft's forces stood idly
by as Baghdad's forces mercilessly crushed the rebellion. In fact,
at the time, Washington even lifted its ban on over-flights, allowing
Iraqi attack helicopters to suppress the rebellion.
This history is well remembered in the south. Add to that the bloody
toll the "no-fly zone" attacks and sanctions have taken on the predominantly
Shi'ite population and one can see Bush's dreams of a Northern Alliance
type force floating slowly down the banks of the Shatt Al-Arab.
Another factor that cannot be ignored when gauging potential support
for the US in the south is the unimaginable suffering caused here
by the sanctions. Basra and its surrounding area were the epicenter
of Washington's use of depleted uranium munitions and the hospitals
are like virtual morgues for children with leukemia and other treatable
diseases. In the words of one doctor in Basra, rampant congenital
deformities (birth defects) have parents "no longer asking the sex
of their children, but whether or not they will have a healthy child
or a child with a malformation."
While Basra is a poor devastated area, the people are proud and dignified.
Even in the poorest slums, people speak of defending their homes against
American invaders. In some cases, these are rat-infested hovels with
no plumbing, running water or electricity. People are scared and anxious.
The military and militias are being prepared and once again families
brace for their children to be caught in the middle, as they have
been in Basra so many times through the centuries. Sadly, one man
told us that he doesn't need to talk to his children about what may
lie ahead, saying, "War is like daily bread to them."
|A boy stands at the window of his house
in Jumurriyah neighborhood in Basra, Iraq. Photo by Thorne Anderson.
Scahill is an independent journalist, who reports for the nationally
syndicated Radio and TV show Democracy Now! He is currently based
in Baghdad, Iraq, where he and filmmaker Jacquie
Soohen are coordinating Iraqjournal.org,
the only website providing regular independent reporting from the
ground in Baghdad.
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