Fri, Aug 15, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Basra simmers in the heat while tempers boil over

The people of Basra had great expectations for their would-be liberators, but their patience with the coalition is wearing thin

By Jamie Wilson  /  THE GUARDIAN , BASRA, IRAQ

If Iraq has had it bad over the past three decades, then Basra has had it the worst. Parts of the Iran-Iraq war were fought virtually at the gates of the city. In 1991 an estimated 250,000 people died in the uprising against former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

As a punishment the regime left the city to rot, and it shows. The buildings are crumbling, and the canals, which once led to the city being compared favorably to Venice, are filled with rubbish.

The city was due a bit of good luck, and most people thought the British and the Americans would bring it.

But four months on things are, many say, no better, and whether by political design or through pure frustration exaggerated by the intense heat, some citizens decided at the weekend that it was time to have a say.

The riots began on Saturday at a petrol station in Sahht Square, a large open expanse of wasteland described by one British official as the city's answer to Belfast's Crumlin Road.

Tuesday, back at Red Six, the soldier's codeword for the petrol station, there was no rioting, but among some of the drivers of the 400 or so vehicles waiting to fill up there was not much sign of the anger and resentment having gone away.

The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) is using more than 6 million liters of fuel confiscated from three smuggling barges seized in the Shatt al-Arab waterway to increase supplies of petrol to Basra, but the pumps were dry in Sahht Square. The CPA says vandals have torn down electricity lines and blames the power problems in the city on the outdated and badly maintained 1970s infrastructure.

But some residents are in no doubt that others are the cause of the problems. Sabri Zugheyer, 45, a restaurant owner, who needed fuel for his generator so that he could open up, said: "The British promised to make everything better, but now it's worse. Even in the old days it was never as bad as this. Their promises are worth nothing."

Kadhem Sagbhan, 29, a laborer, said he had thrown stones during the riots, but next time there was trouble he would throw hand grenades at the coalition forces.

"They promised us there would be petrol today, but there is nothing. The British, they are selling it to the Kuwaitis and taking US$75 as their cut," he said, parroting an often heard accusation in Basra.

It is what they expected the old regime to do and they expect the same of this one. Even one of the British soldiers on guard at the petrol station yesterday said he understood why the people were so angry.

"In this heat?" he said pointing at the sky, "you can hardly blame them."

Zakea Sagar, 51, was not out on the streets rioting at the weekend. The rest of her family who share the three-room house in what the British soldiers call the Shiite flats, an area of slums on the west of the city, was not there either. An open sewer runs past their front door and rubbish is piled up on the street. In the small courtyard it is clean and tidy, but stiflingly hot. Since the day before they had not had electricity to power the ceiling fans, and no one in the household -- from her 80-year-old father to her grandson of six months -- had managed to sleep.

She welcomed the arrival of the British with open arms and still values their presence. But she cannot disguise the disappointment at the fact that her life, and the life of her family, is now worse.

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