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Basra residents safer, but looking for work

Iraqi governor talks about how to revive southern Iraqi city.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 4, 2009

Basra, Iraq's Algeria district is seen at night. More shops have opened and families stay out later since security has improved after a major Iraqi Army operation last year took back the city from Shiite militias.

Jane Arraf

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Basra, Iraq

At night when Basra's upscale Algeria district comes to life, Wissam Shawal rolls out his street-corner kebab stand and shapes the ground lamb onto skewers.

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"It's a temporary job," says the university graduate. But he's had it for nine years.

A year after the Iraqi Army wrested control of the city from Shiite militias, Basra provides a glimpse of what the rest of Iraq could be like minus the violence. It's also a window on the kinds of challenges still facing the country.

People don't fear to leave their homes now. Suicide bombers are almost nonexistent. Today, the more "normal" concerns of finding a decent job – or any job – have replaced security as the biggest concern in one of Iraq's largest cities.

Up until a year ago, when Iranian-backed gunmen ruled the streets, the prospect of economic recovery was almost unthinkable.

The British, in charge of Iraq's south, had withdrawn from the city under attack from Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. British development officials were banned from going into Basra, even if they'd wanted to.

New governor, new vision

Now that it's secure enough to think about rebuilding this port city into Iraq's gateway to the world, the new provincial governor has big ambitions but few resources.

"We are aware that our abilities are limited. Our budget this year is one-third of what we had last year," says new governor Shiltagh Abboud Sharad.

Governor Sharad is from the same Dawa Party as Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki. That link would ordinarily bode well for Basra's chances of getting more federal help. But the plunge in oil prices – from nearly $150 a barrel last year to around $50 a barrel, is hampering rebuilding.

Almost all planned capital spending for government ministries has disappeared as the 2009 budget has been cut – twice already this year.

But Basra's struggles began well before the drop in oil prices. More than 70 percent of Iraq's oil revenue comes from the nearby southern oil fields. But Basra, battered during the Iran-Iraq war and then punished by Saddam Hussein for the 1991 Shiite uprising, has never seen much of it.

"We want to raise the profile of Basra. The government previously didn't pay too much attention to the dense population here perhaps," says the governor, a professor of Arabic literature. "We intend it to be the economic heart for the whole of Iraq."

Right now it's a heart barely beating. Although the city has an educated work force and enough stability now to allow reconstruction, years of neglect and three wars in 30 years have left the infrastructure in such bad shape it will take hundreds of billions of dollars to repair.

During Britain's six years in charge, its main project was a water treatment plant that now supplies clean water to a million people. But there are still no sewage systems in most of the city and electricity is intermittent: residents get only three hours on and three hours off – on a good day.

Signs of recovery