The official British view of Basra: It’s absolutely booming!

basra460×2761.jpgRichard Norton-Taylor and Ghaith Abdul-Ahad The Guardian, Friday August 15 2008 Article history
Basra is transformed, say British commanders, but locals paint a different picture. Photograph: Essam al-Sudani/AFP/Getty Images

House prices have doubled in a matter of months. Restaurants are opening alongside the waterside corniche. Oil-rich Kuwaitis are beginning to move in, and trade at the port is booming.

Welcome to Basra.

This is the remarkably rosy picture of life in Iraq’s second city outlined by a senior British military figure today.

Major General Barney White-Spunner, just returned from commanding British forces in southern Iraq, claims Basra has been transformed. Less than a year ago, British soldiers were being attacked day and night. A week ago, White-Spunner says, he was having supper in a restaurant on Basra’s corniche by the Shatt al-Arab waterway.

“Property prices have more than doubled since March. One house is going for £90,000, a threefold increase,” he says, referring to the now desirable stretch of the city’s riverbank walkway. He talks of the “return of the diaspora”, with Christians and Sunnis coming back to their Shia-dominated city. Soldiers from the new Iraqi national army had recently built a number of Sunni mosques. And it is not only Basrawis buying property – Kuwaitis and others are helping to push up prices.

“The UK is getting close to what we set out to achieve,” White-Spunner says, referring to British forces training the Iraqi army’s local 14th division and to the Iraqi navy which he describes as “doing a fantastic job”.

Basra’s port of Umm Qasr is “booming”, he says. A total of 30 civilian flights a week now come in to Basra’s international airport and 20 major international oil companies are planning to invest in the region.

The optimistic message is reflected in plans now being drawn up in the Ministry of Defence to cut the number of British troops in Basra from 4,000 to just a few hundred in the first half of next year.

The reason, British military officials say, is greater security. Security is now the main concern for just 7% of Basrawis, according to a recent poll conducted for the MoD. White-Spunner points to a recent statement by the radical shia cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, that his Mahdi army militia was no longer a military organisation.

“There is a view the militia is going to come back. It’s not going to happen. We are not going to see parts of Basra going back to militia control,” the British general says.

Attacks are still likely by special groups – a euphemism for Shia militia rebels – and by extremists and criminal gangs, he adds. But Iraqi security forces say there are no more than 1,500 of them and that they can cope with them without the help of foreign forces.

White-Spunner is also sanguine about Iran. Some elements there, he says referring to the Revolutionary Guards, are still smuggling weapons over the border to the “special groups”, a practice he describes as despicable.

However, he adds: “In the long term, Iran wants a stable democracy in Iraq – a stable neighbour with a Shia majority. In the short term, it is totally legitimate that there is Iranian influence in southern Iraq, culturally and religious.”

The message he wants to convey is that by next year, the Iraqi army and security forces will be able to maintain law and order in Basra and greater security will lead to economic development. Britain will maintain a military presence there after next year but it will be a group of a few hundred simply training Iraqi forces in such skills as command and control, and intelligence gathering.

It is an optimistic reading of life in Basra, but local Iraqis tell a different story. “The assassinations are back, especially in the last two weeks, just like before,” journalist Abu Hend told the Guardian yesterday.

“Two men on a motorbike have been shooting people and five barbers have been killed in the last week alone. The militiamen and some of the commanders of the Mahdi army are still there. They don’t carry weapons in public but they are still there. A few months ago if you wanted to import anything through the port you had to bribe the Mahdi army officials who controlled the port. Now the Iraqi army and the government are in control so you only bribe one official now. There is no work apart from collecting garbage. It doesn’t matter if you are an engineer or a college graduate. And you have to bribe someone in the municipality to get work as a street sweeper.”

For high school teacher Abu Mustafa, the main difference now is that Iraqi soldiers fill the streets instead of armed militiamen.

“The Mahdi army doesn’t exist publicly but the killers and assassins are still there and people are still getting killed – though less than before. The militiamen are wearing government uniforms.

“The army raids remind us of what the Ba’athists and Saddam’s mukhabarat [secret police] used to do. We thought that after Saddam we would be living in a new Iraq but the same system is back. For example, now the directorate of education is controlled by a new militia they’ve started replacing headteachers with their own men.”

But for labourer Ali Khadem the situation has improved since the Iraqi army entered Basra. “There is less kidnapping and killing but the militiamen are still there though they are not armed in the streets. There are so many of them they can’t arrest them. If they did they’d have to arrest half of Basra. If you are a state employee then life is good, but if you don’t have a fixed salary then things are very hard.”