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.
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.
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 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.
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.”
JEREMY 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 www.iraqjournal.org, the only website providing regular independent reporting from the ground in Baghdad.