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Robbing the Poor

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.


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.

Outside Abdul Aali's office, Sadoon confesses that he has to beg the Ministry of Trade in Baghdad for flour for Basra even though nearly all of the country's grain imports come through the province's ports.

Abdul Aali says the begging must end. "We must find a way to self-finance," she says, perhaps thinking of another region of Iraq that has overcome some of the same inequities that plague the south.

In Kurdish northern Iraq, north of Kirkuk, the once impoverished regional government found a way to self-finance: In the 1990s, it went to war with Baghdad and carved out an autonomous region. Officially, Kurdistan is subject to the same emasculating policies that cripple the south's autonomy. Unofficially, the Kurdish government collects taxes by way of its powerful political parties, including levying fees on illegal border traffic. The Iraqi Border Patrol in Kurdistan is stacked with former Kurdish militia who insist they serve Baghdad but in fact answer first to their regional government.

Kurdistan's success raises the question, Does the south have to wage war to wrest resources from Baghdad?


All over southern Iraq, there are apparent signs of progress as billions of dollars from donor countries belatedly finds its way into bricks, mortar, and metal. In Samawah, Japanese engineers are building a $100 million, 60-megawatt power plant. But what immediate good the plant will do the surrounding area is unclear. It's likely that most of the power it generates will go north.

In Basra, the U.N. has issued a $24 million contract to a Belgian firm to dredge a channel that connects the province's ports to the Persian Gulf, allowing passage of larger ships. Iraqi Port Authority officials say local workers are being paid to clear hazardous wrecks from the channel, a welcome if limited boon to Basra residents.

In coming weeks, the new Iraqi Navy will add 200 more men and accept several tugboat motherships capable of supporting patrol boats away from port, according to Royal Navy captain Wayne Kreble, commander of Coalition naval advisers at Umm Qasr. The Iraqi Navy's expansion and the channel work signal Baghdad's intention to make Basra a centerpiece of the new Iraqi economy—which, of course, looks a lot like the old Iraqi economy: rigid, over-centralized, and unfair to the provinces that provide its wealth.

Such regional rifts in Iraq's economic landscape are only some of the problems that make peace in Iraq seem increasingly distant.


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