Inside Iraq: Basra, liberated but scarred

Iraq's army drove out the brutal militias, but for the people of the ravaged city of Basra recovery is fragile.

Iraqi soldiers and US marines stop a young man who was driving erratically through a crowded marketplace in the troubled Basra neighbourhood of Hayaniya.
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BASRA, IRAQ // When Nouri al Maliki, the prime minister, sent two Iraqi army divisions to retake control of Basra from Shiite militia in April, the 1st Battalion, 26th Brigade from Ramadi decorated their lorries with plastic flowers and started driving south for the liberation. "We were happy for a mission to get rid of all the militias," said Staff Sgt Khalid Jabbar al Hassanawi. US and Iraqi army commanders had worried that the mostly Shiite brigade would not be prepared to fight fellow Shiites. But the soldiers stood their ground.

"We don't fight the Shiite, we fight the militias," said Staff Sgt Hassanawi, whose men call him sergeant major as a term of respect for his 30 years in the service. On a night patrol through the Shuala neighbourhood of Basra's troubled Hayaniya district, Staff Sgt Hassanawi navigated an obstacle course of piles of rubbish and open sewers in the narrow streets of one of Basra's poorest neighbourhoods.

"Iraqi army," a soldier announced as he rapped on a metal gate that was the entrance to a small home. The door was opened without hesitation or fear, speaking volumes about the new-found trust the people have for the Iraqi army. Even out of earshot of the soldiers, residents said they felt much safer since the army arrived and broke the grip of the Shiite militias controlling the city. "They know us and we know them," said Sheikh Mehdi Tamim, who looked to be at least in his seventies but bounded about, playfully spritzing guests with a bottle of perfume, as his three-year old grandson toddled around the room.

"We couldn't go outside - especially the women," said Sheikh Tamim's wife, Fadhila, recalling the time under the militia. "We were afraid of being kidnapped. They would write rules on the walls," she said. Among the rules were warnings that girls had to be properly covered and that men could not wear jeans. There was to be no music. Although the neighbourhoods are free of fighting, the biggest problem for Basra is now jobs. Unemployment runs at about 70 per cent. Mr Wadi's four brothers, dressed in immaculate white robes, work as day labourers. But often they say, there is no work. At another house, a young man lovingly holds a white pigeon. "I have no work so I spend my time with these," Firas said. This fabled city is just beginning to recover from years of devastation. The 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war was fought on its doorstep. Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent failed Shiite uprising in southern Iraq were followed by years of international trade sanctions and Iraqi government neglect. And then came the US-led invasion, unleashing all the forces that Saddam's toppled regime had suppressed. In the growing security vacuum, Basra and the port of Um Qasr became the prizes carved up by Shiite parties and their militias. Pictures of Muqtada al Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Army, replaced the portraits of Saddam. British forces, fighting a war that had become politically untenable at home, withdrew in the midst of mortar and rocket attacks, leaving the city for the relative safety of Basra airport. "Tactical overwatch" they called it. Among Iraqis and a considerable number of US officials, the perception was that the British had handed over Basra to the militias. "Our presence in the city was inviting attacks," said Tom Holloway, a British military spokesman. "When we came out of the city we had an agreement [with provincial Iraqi officials] that we would not go back in unless we were asked, and we were not asked." In the end, the Iraqi government moved on its own with the prime minister launching an unprecedented military offensive. With little apparent planning or co-ordination with US forces, it seemed to teeter on the brink of disaster before it took hold. "We got orders to head into Basra and clear all of Hayaniya and Jamiat," said Major Mohammed Saddam Khalifa, an acting Iraqi army battalion commander, whose men saw some of the worst of the fighting in Ramadi. He said they found weapons, explosives, and torture houses when they arrived. "The British were good people but they didn't do anything for us," said Satar Rashid, a retired oil worker, surrounded by his family in Shuala. "They have tanks and aeroplanes and they didn't use any of them." The Iraqi soldiers travelled down to Hayaniya with the US marines who had been training them in Ramadi and with whom they fought against Sunni insurgents. Marine Capt Matt McDonald said he was "surprised" there was no problem with the mainly Shiite battalion fighting other Shiites. For some in the neighbourhood, though, the army came too late. Ra'id Thair Wadi sits on a blanket in his living room. There is little else he can do. Assailants shot off one of his legs and left him to die in the street as punishment for drinking alcohol. The other leg was so badly injured it had to be amputated. Mr Wadi, a driver, said he had been walking to his car when he was stopped by five gunmen who shot him in the legs, threw him into the car and took him to a deserted road where they finished the job with a machine gun. "I lay from 10 at night till six in the morning," Mr Wadi said. "I almost died." He blamed either Sadr's Mahdi Army or the Iranian-backed armed wing of the Fadhila party, which has its power base in Basra. Angry that he had survived, his attackers placed a homemade bomb outside his house, which shattered the windows but did not hurt anyone, he said. Mr Wadi is 38 years old and can recount exactly how many days since he was shot. "If the army leaves they'll come back to kill us one by one," he said. The attack also changed the life of his daughter, Kiffah, who is 14. "I dropped out of school to take care of my father," she said, somehow still smiling sweetly. Sitting next to her father, Kiffah fans him with a matt of woven date palms. Her mother died five years ago after she was badly burnt in a kitchen fire. Like most of the women in the family, Imam, who is the wife of Mr Wadi's uncle, has her hair covered, but she does not see why traditionally devout Muslims cannot happily coexist in the same household with those who drink alcohol. "It's not a problem," she said. "There are some who drink and also some who pray." "Before the war, all the bars were open, all the social clubs were open," Mr Wadi said nostalgically of the Basra of the old days. "You could drink if you wanted to, you could pray if you wanted to. Life was good then - there were no militias, we could sit outside until four in the morning. The Iranians have destroyed us." On Staff Sgt Hassanawi's evening stroll through the darkened streets of al Shuwaila, Mohammed Ali Khalaf is selling kebabs grilled over a coal fire. His huge hands and feet seem misshapen. "Two years ago the militias took me and my friend and beat us," he said, explaining that he had been drinking. "My friend died and when they took me to the hospital they came there and told the doctors not to treat me." Does he still drink alcohol? "Why not," Mr Khalaf said. "It's a democracy."