Tue December 7, 2010

In Iraq, Basra Booms After Decades Of Warfare

Basra is enjoying a comeback after suffering through three major wars. These days, Iraqis in the oil-rich southern province are enjoying something close to a normal life. Basrawis say the boom is long overdue.

One of the most striking things about Basra, especially for people coming from Baghdad, is how much it is not like Baghdad.

There is no curfew in Basra. There's a circus in town, and a newly renovated five-star hotel.

Night Street is bustling. Butchers, fruit stalls, record stores and shops selling peanuts, men's clothing and shoes are busy drumming up sales.

Situated on the Shatt al-Arab, a waterway that spills out into the Persian Gulf, this port city for centuries was a thriving commercial and cultural hub.

But the past few decades have not been kind.

Hard Times

First, Basra was the center of much fighting in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Imposing statues -- angrily pointing fingers toward Iran and representing the war -- once lined the Shatt al-Arab.

Now those statues are gone. In their place is a huge outdoor movie screen dedicated to victims of the 1991 Gulf War, when Iraq invaded Kuwait and the U.S. bombed Iraq.

The screen shows photos of Shiite martyrs who after that war rose up against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Many thought they would have the backing of the U.S. But instead they were rounded up, imprisoned, tortured and killed by Saddam's regime.

The screen also shows documentary-style films about the resilience of Basra's people after what they call the "third Gulf War," when the U.S. invaded in 2003.

Three men watching the documentaries on a recent day say the big screen helps them understand how far they've come -- especially given the sectarian violence that overtook Basra after the U.S. invasion.

One of the men, Ahmed Qasar, says it would have been impossible to stand in the street in 2006. "That time, no one in the street," he recalls.

And now, he says, "We can go inside and outside. We are free now."

Economic Revival

All three men graduated from top universities but were unemployed for years. Now they work at the state-run Southern Oil Co.

Iraq is thought to have the world's second-largest oil reserves, after Saudi Arabia. The bulk of that oil is in the Basra region.

Aside from jobs, though, any benefit from recently signed contracts with foreign companies to develop Basra's oil fields has yet to trickle down to average people, says Abdul Amir Saeed Jabar Batat, who owns a floating restaurant on the Shatt al-Arab.

The restaurant is called What Basra Deserves. It opened in 2008, once the Iraqi army re-took control of Basra from sectarian militias.

He says the government is actually doing very little to develop the place. This summer, thousands of people took to the streets to protest electricity shortages.

Batat says it's Basra's big families, who for generations have worked as merchants, who are behind the Basra boom.

He says that for a long time, Iraqi merchants hid their money because it was too dangerous to invest it.

"But now, because the city is open, they begin to invest their money," Batat says.

More Like Kurdistan Than Baghdad?

This change over the past two years has put the U.S. military in Basra in the role of developer as well as protector.

A U.S. Chamber of Commerce delegation recently made its second visit to Basra.

Maj. Gen. Vincent Brooks commands U.S. troops in the area.

"There will still be violence, there will still be political intrigue," he tells companies that specialize in steel and agriculture. "But the opportunity to invest and commit oneself and one's company here is best right now."

All of this success means that some Basrawis are beginning to see themselves as separate from the more chaotic and less prosperous Baghdad.

Officials in Basra look at the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq and say, "Why can't we do the same? Why can't we keep more of our oil revenue, and have more of a say in who gets the oil contracts?"

Issues such as these dominate a new call-in show on al-Rasheed Radio in Basra.

The station director says it won't be easy for Basra and Baghdad to resolve their differences. But at least now people feel comfortable enough to talk about it. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.