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BASRA: CITY ON THE EDGE
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
December 22, 2006

THE city theater is show ing T.S. Elliot's "Murder in the Cathedral" to packed audiences. At the other end of the town, scientists and clerics argue it out in a seminar on the relationship between science and faith. In between, the provincial governor marks the start of constrution on a new House of Justice with a flowery speech to local dignitaries. In the evening, men watching TV in teahouses rush into the streets to fire their guns into the air, marking the national soccer squad's victory in an international competition.

Nothing extraordinary? Well, this is a day in Basra - Iraq's No. 2 urban center, with a population near 3 million - and nothing is quite what it seems.

Elliot's play has been rewritten to narrate the martyrdom not of Thomas a Becket by Henry II but that of Ayatollah Muhammad Baqer Sadr at the hands of Saddam Hussein. Almost every participant in the science and faith seminar sports a pious beard and toys with an Islamic rosary - and any suggestion that science may at times contradict faith is offered sotto voce, if at all.

The plot for the new House of Justice includes a site that was once a mass grave, with the mortal remains of several hundred victims of Saddam.

Even the Iraqi national soccer team's surprise performance in the Asian Olympics is not as simple as it seems. Most Iraqis celebrate their team's victory - but insurgents have vowed to kill all the champions as soon as they get home with their silver trophy.

Reported to be in a state of civil war on more than a dozen occasions in the past three years, Basra is as calm as a city with an uncertain future can be. The university has reopened - although most female students now must wear the mandatory hijab, while males sport designer stubble.

Hawkers on the once-busy corniche, or on corners in the old town, seem to be doing brisk business; parts of the traditional bazaar are creeping back to life. Most admit readily that the city is the hub of massive contraband networks with tentacles in Iran, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and as far away as India.

I find few signs of the much talked-of Iranian presence in the city. Yet everyone assures me that "the Iranians" are all over the place; they are hiding themselves, practicing a physical version of their religious habit of taqiyyah (dissimulation) until the multinational forces leave Iraq. "Once the British leave, the Iranians will come out of the woodworks to seize control," says a local tribal chief. "We know they are there, and they have lots of money and arms."

One does not need to look hard to spot a few members of the Mahdi Army - the militia supposedly led by Muqtada Sadr, a junior mullah now in cahoots with Iran. Yet, although the Sadr family of theologians enjoys a centuries-old reputation, it is clear that young Muqtada and his associates don't run the show in Basra.

The strongest Shiite group in the city is a loose coalition known as the Fadhilah (Virtue) Party - which, while developing the usual themes of Shiism, is Arab nationalist and anti-Iranian. Next in influence is the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), another loose Shia coalition led by Abdul-Aziz Hakim, a junior mullah, and Adel Abdul-Mahdi, one of Iraq's two vice presidents. SCIRI was close to Iran for almost a quarter of a century, but has taken care to emphasize its independence since Saddam's fall.

Iran's influence - in the form of mafia-like networks of military and business interests - may look pervasive. But most Iraqis Shiites don't like Iran and are suspicious of its allegedly hegemonic ambitions. If they maintain an appearance of close ties with Iran, it is to have an insurance policy against the day the Americans and their allies run away.

Iran's money, important in the early post-Saddam days, is no longer needed. Most Iraqi Shiite groups have developed their own funding networks via semi-legal (and at times openly illegal) business activities, including export of refined petroleum products to Iran.

And each Shiite party maintains its own private army - which, in need, could be unleashed against political rivals. Nevertheless, Basra has remained relatively free of factional feuds and insurgent activity.

Sunnis in the city accuse the Shiites, more than 80 percent of the population, of "acts of silent ethnic cleansing." And, indeed, a quick tour of a once mainly Sunni neighborhood in northern Basra reveals some boarded-up houses whose Sunni inhabitants have been forced to flee for fear of their lives.

Kidnapping also seems a bustling business, with several teahouses indicated as places where the payment of ransom, and the release of captives, is negotiated almost daily.

For all those black spots, signs of life are multiplying in a city that, according to its inhabitants, had been in suspended animation after it revolted and was crushed by Saddam in 1991.

To tribal sheiks who have reemerged as key players in southern Iraq's checkered politics, the success or failure of Basra's return to life largely depends on whether the Multinational Force, which in here means 7,100 British soldiers, will leave before the local security forces are in a position to assume control.

The sheiks call the British "Abu Naji," which translates roughly to "The Father of salvation." And it is no longer in purely military terms that the U.K. presence is still needed.

Early last month a British contingent, backed by Danish special forces, organized a spectacular raid on a cluster of terrorist hideouts along the river, killing and capturing a number of insurgents and seizing arms caches. Such operations, however, are rare, as the "Abu Naji" has been preparing to hand over security to the Iraqis and let Iraqi units do whatever fighting may still be required.

In fact, Basra was scheduled to become the third province that "Abu Naji" would hand over to the Iraqis before Christmas. That was postponed because of reports that Sunni insurgents were already moving into the area in anticipation of the British withdrawal. The real reason for the delay, however, may be the failure of the rival Shiite parties to agree on a unified authority to assume control once the British have retreated to their bases away from the populated areas.

Construction on the new House of Justice will take two years. The question in the back of everyone's mind in Basra is whether the multinational allies will stick around until it is built.

Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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