Robbing the Poor

Business as usual in Iraq's centralized economy

 BASRA, Iraq—On a hot day in June, sailors in the blue uniforms of the Iraqi Navy work on a boat tied to the pier at Umm Qasr naval base. Under looming cargo cranes and swooping gulls, a massive tanker is moored, one of the more than 50 vessels that arrive monthly carrying half a million tons of American and Australian grain. Ten miles off the coast, two rusty drilling platforms pump $12 billion worth of oil annually into tanker ships.

This is the port of Basra city, the heart of a province that Minister of Transportation Salam Al-Maliki calls Iraq's "commercial capital." In a country with decimated airports, few international highways, and hardly any active railroads, Basra Province's two ports are the best way in and out for food, oil, and goods. Hence the presence of the Iraqi Navy—and of the Coalition fleet that cruises just over the horizon.

Basra Province encompasses some of the most valuable land in the country. But outside the port's gates, Basra city is as poor as any in Iraq's four southernmost provinces. Overworked generators cough black smoke, water is tinted green by sewage leaks from dilapidated mains, and unemployed men crouch in the shade of crumbling walls. It's a portrait of poverty made all the more tragic by the proximity of so much wealth. Valuable stuff comes from and through Basra, but it never stops or stays. The Shiite south may be free from Saddam Hussein's murderous regime, but it still suffers a form of tyranny at least as old: a centralized economy that takes far more from the south than it gives back.

Iraqi Navy sailors at the Umm Qasr base
photo: David Axe
Iraqi Navy sailors at the Umm Qasr base

Throughout southern Iraq, residents complain of electricity shortages that hamstring water treatment plants. Their ire rises during summer months, when temperatures soar over 120 degrees, accumulated garbage spontaneously combusts, and insurgent violence spikes. Exacerbating residents' frustration is the presence in the southern provinces of several new and renovated power plants that would be capable of providing uninterrupted electricity to everyone in southern Iraq. The problem, according to Iraqi engineer Nisrin Alias, 50, is that much of the power generated in southern Iraq goes north to Baghdad. "If the lines to Baghdad were to be cut, Basra would have a lot more power," she says.

Baghdad relies on the resources of outlying provinces. Power, food, and fuel all come from the north and the south. The central government, too, counts on revenue generated by southern Iraq with its oil fields and its ports, and northern Iraq with its balance of the country's oil. All major industries and infrastructure in Iraq are state owned, so everything of value in the country flows into Baghdad before it's doled out by the central government.

Northern Iraq suffers from Baghdad's pillaging as much as the south does. Kurds in Kirkuk, a northern city that commands 40 percent of Iraq's oil reserves, say they receive no oil revenue. Despite pumping a million barrels of oil daily, Kirkuk suffers gasoline shortages and high unemployment. And explosive population growth has strained infrastructure suffering from decades of underinvestment. "There are neighborhoods [in Kirkuk] that are below third world," says Brigadier General Alan Gayhart, commander of local American forces.

He may as well be describing Basra, where Baghdad's control—and neglect—extends even to the province's 41-member elected council.

"We receive our [entire] budget from Baghdad," says Isra Abdul Aali, one of the council's 13 female members. "It's just enough for members' salaries."

Abdul Aali and other members say they are better positioned than Baghdad ministers to oversee reconstruction in the province. But council chair Muhammad Sadoon says a dearth of resources from Baghdad means the council depends on foreign governments to finance even the smallest projects.

On June 8, council members and British officials cut the ribbon on a $500,000 renovation of the council building in Basra city, paid for by the British government. British consul general Matthew Stuart Ines says it's the right place to start. "If you haven't got an office and a computer," he says, "how on earth are you going to draw up a budget?"

Council members might ask what good a budget is if there's no money.

Some council members say the U.K. is partly responsible for the council's relative powerlessness by issuing contracts without the council's input. After the ribbon cutting, council member Jalli Najim, 63, confronts Joanne Simpson, 30, deputy head of the British government's reconstruction agency. "We need to see where contracts go and we need to be more active in projects," Najim says.

"This building is an example of how we've responded to your needs," Simpson counters. "The council asked [the British government] to refurbish this building."

Najim is cowed. With no real power, all he can do is posture, threaten, then beg.

Down the hall, Abdul Aali describes plans to take a cut of port duties for council activities. Duties earn billions of dollars a year for Baghdad. Karen McLuskie from the British Foreign Office steps in to say the plans are only tentative, and Abdul Aali goes quiet. That a low-level foreign diplomat overshadows one of the highest elected officials in Basra is testimony to the true state of democracy in Iraq—and to the monopoly on homegrown power enjoyed by Baghdad.

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