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Basra residents safer, but looking for work

Iraqi governor talks about how to revive southern Iraqi city.

(Page 2 of 3)



At the nearby deep-water port of Um Qasr, business has picked up dramatically since the port was wrenched from militia control. But shipping experts say it also needs a revamped infrastructure, guaranteed power, and additional berths before it approaches international standards. Business people still complain that the port is riddled with corruption and its payroll is inflated with unqualified and sometimes nonexistent employees – a problem throughout Iraq.

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The new provincial government's priorities are maintaining security, repairing the damaged infrastructure, and addressing unemployment, said to be 30 to 50 percent of the workforce – even higher than that in Baghdad.

Mr. Sharad says that much of the job creation will come from investment from neighboring countries, including Iran and Kuwait, and from Iraqi expatriates.

Iran and Iraq recently signed memorandums of understanding meant to increase bilateral trade to $10 billion by 2010 – among the projects are a $1.5 billion deal to build a housing complex south of Basra. As with a $3.7 billion agreement for Italy to construct a new port, it is only in the feasibility planning stages.

As for private investment, most of the focus is on Iraq's oil industry. While there are potential fortunes to be made here in the southern oil fields, most big oil companies are hanging back, waiting for oil legislation that would make their position clearer under Iraqi law.

Rebuilding law and order

Although there's been a vast improvement in security since the militias were driven out last year, in the current climate of budget cuts rebuilding Basra's police force could take years. Basra's police force had been widely infiltrated by the militias – more than half the police force either fled during the fighting or was later dismissed, officials say.

In the Algeria district, Mr Shawal, the kebab vendor, explains that while the Shiite militias were in charge they would have killed anyone speaking a foreign language. It's safer now, but jobs remain scarce.

"I looked for a job in many places and none of them gave me any opportunity to improve myself," says the English language graduate, who went to classes in the day and made kebabs at night. "We are..." he says, searching for the right word, "desperate."

False US and British promises

In interviews with a wide range of Iraqi officials and ordinary Basrawis, almost all said the promises of the British and the Americans to help rebuild the country after toppling President Hussein have failed to materialize. British officials say they have spent the equivalent of more than a billion dollars on reconstruction in Basra. But most Iraqis say that they will be remembered for withdrawing from the city when it got too dangerous.

For the first two years of the war, the US military envied the British assignment in Iraq's south, where a largely Shiite population was still grateful enough that Hussein was gone that British soldiers could drive around in unarmored Land Rovers and patrol in berets rather than Kevlar helmets.

But as weapons from Iran came through porous borders, Shiite militias gained strength until they took Basra and its lucrative port. The British, under mortar attack at their base in the city withdrew to the airport, calling it "strategic overwatch."

Caught in a deeply unpopular war, America's strongest ally in this war had became one of its most reluctant partners. A formal British hand over to Iraq was concluded last week.

Malaki's gambit

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