Among Shiites in Iraqi front-line city, there's little sympathy for Iran. Basra Journal
Ayatollah Khomeini is no friend of muezzin Khasan Abdullah. Mr. Abdullah, who calls the Muslim faithful to prayer five times a day in this heavily Shiite city, has twice survived Iranian artillery shells hitting his mosque.Skip to next paragraph
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The most recent attack came Sept. 10 when an Iranian shell grazed the edge of the roof, shattering glass in the mosque's tiled dome and knocking out several water tanks. Three months ago a shell ripped through the rooftop air-conditioning system leaving a gaping hole in the ceiling. No one was injured in either attack, but the incidents left a strong impression on Abdullah.
``First of all, he is not Islamic ... ,'' says Abdullah of Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini. ``Khomeini hates his people. If he loved his people he would make peace with his neighbors [Iraq].''
Since Iran's major offensive last winter, Basra has become a prime target for Iranian strategists keen on conquering the city and triggering an indigenous Shia uprising to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
But it seems the Iranian plan is backfiring as a growing number of Iranian shells fall indiscriminately in neighborhoods and on the homes of the same Iraqi Shiites Ayatollah Khomeini says he wants to liberate.
``Iran is bombarding Basra day after day and everyone in Basra, Shia and Sunni don't like Khomeini because Khomeini is bombing them,'' says Sabah Muhammad al-Kafaji, a Shiite sergeant in the Iraqi Army.
In recent months, Basra has taken on a new importance for Iranian military planners. They use Iraq's second largest city as a readily accessible target for retaliation for Iraqi bombing raids on Iranian cities, factories, and oil facilities.
The city was reportedly shelled by Iran during the recent Gulf peace mission of UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cu'ellar. Residents say Iran shelled the city several times last week. And the expectation is that without clear progress in UN peace efforts, Basra may soon be the target of another major Iranian campaign.
As a result, roughly half of Basra's 1 million residents are estimated to have moved to safer areas. Many of the rest live in perpetual fear that the next shells may fall on their homes.
``Every time we expect there will be very big shelling here,'' says Samir Hanna, an Iraqi Christian, who moved from his home with his wife, two children, and sister-in-law to a safer neighborhood in Basra. Mr. Hanna says that when the shelling starts, the family listens to determine if the explosions are drawing closer. If so, the family gets in the car and drives west.
``We adapt to these things,'' he explains, but adds that his young children are frightened.
According to Dr. Abdel al-Mansuri, director of the Basra Republic Hospital, roughly 1,000 civilians have been killed or seriously hurt in Iranian artillery attacks this year.
During a recent four-hour tour arranged by the Iraqi government for a group of Western journalists, the scars of Iranian artillery and air attacks were apparent throughout the city. Buildings were pockmarked and many windows shattered.
Damage appears heaviest on the eastern side of town, closest to the front. The once-fashionable Corniche, along the Shatt al-Arab is now deserted, with coils of barbed wire running down one side of the street in front of the modern Sheraton Hotel.
``Welcome to the Sheraton,'' is printed across the front in white lettering. The pockmarked hotel, which appears to have taken a direct hit, was closed in March.
Across the street, the Iraqi Army has built a series of sandbag bunkers. They are manned by a handful of middle-aged Iraqi foot soldiers with Soviet-made AK-47 assault rifles.
Nearby a pontoon bridge crosses the now-dormant Shatt al-Arab. Several ships, trapped in the narrow river since the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, are moored along the bank. One appears to be resting upright on the river bottom.
Conversations with Basra residents were punctuated by the occasional distant boom of outgoing Iraqi artillery. Despite the evidence of war, life continues. The city's main souk was busy. There was a fair amount of civilian traffic on the strets. Recently bombed roads had fresh layers of asphalt.
But the most interesting construction was in a central square, where two men labored on a 15-foot-tall scaffolding. They were erecting a brand new mural, a larger-than-life portrait of President Hussein.