Basra residents safer, but looking for work
Iraqi governor talks about how to revive southern Iraqi city.
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Last year, when Prime Minister Malaki sent two Iraqi Army divisions from the north to take back the city, he caught even his American partners by surprise.Skip to next paragraph
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The Iraqi Army operation, the biggest of this war, has allowed battered Basra to revive. In the south, the violence has been largely between Shiite militias, without the overlay of Sunni extremist attacks. While bombings in Baghdad are still a daily occurrence, roadside bombs are rare in Basra and suicide bombers practically nonexistent. This city isn't the warren of concrete blast walls and barbed wire seen in other Iraqi cities.
At night, the wealthy Algeria district hums with life again. Vendors sell colorful balloons next to a man spinning cotton candy. The streets are choked with cars and the sidewalks with pedestrians going to an indoor mall that Basrawis optimistically think could someday rival those in the Gulf.
Called the tent mall because of its plastic roof, the shopping center is a collection of small shops selling costume jewelry, gold, and clothing. On the second floor, middle-class Basrawis browse at "Royal Home" for new appliances, Italian porcelain, and French coffee sets.
"Can you help me find a job?" asks one of the salespeople, a university graduate who says he doesn't make enough money to support his family.
Could militias return?
Although the city is no longer under the grip of extremist militias, some residents worry that the militias are only lying in wait.
Most blame the country's open borders for lack of security. Basra's picturesque corniche along the Shatt al-Arab waterway is less than 15 miles from Iran. Badly hit in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, Shiites here rose up against Hussein after his 1991 invasion of Kuwait, an uprising that was brutally put down. A decade of UN sanctions exacerbated the city's decay.
In the security vacuum left by the British, the poverty and desperation allowed militias to flourish. In Basra's biggest neighborhood, Hayaniyah, an estimated 750,000 people are crammed into an area of about four square miles. Here, the militia stepped into the security vacuum and took control. And throughout Basra, they banned hairdressers, music, and alcohol as un-Islamic.
In the streets today, schoolgirls in white head scarves run to school past rivers of sewage. Down one of the twisting alleys, Raid Thamer Wadi sits outside his crumbling house in a wheelchair. He lost both legs two years ago, he says, when militiamen shot him as a punishment for drinking.
Thirteen people share his house. Only one has a job. Mr. Wadi's wife died years ago in a cooking fire. All the cooking and cleaning is done by his daughter Kafiyah, who dropped out of fourth grade to take care of him. "I'm too old to go back to school now," she says.
Wadi's wheelchair is broken and his primitive prosthetic legs weigh six pounds each – too heavy to walk. There is a palpable anger at what Raid sees as an invisible government.
"We thought it would different after Saddam – we'd have a new government, maybe rebuild the city. What have they done for us?" he asks. "Nothing."
A former security adviser involved in the Iraqi military operation last year says that perception is part of why the militias gained such power.
"When the militias took hold of the city in the absence of government, they thought this was their right," says Majid Ahmed al-Sari, an adviser to the Ministry of Defense at the time. "When we suggested, 'That's it – the government is here now, your role has finished,' the militias used to say, 'We are not clashing with you – we found a security void and we filled it.' People used to go to the militia and religious officials for help before they went to any government office."