Tuesday, May 25, 2004

On this and that

I arrived at Basrah Friday afternoon. The moment I wearily stepped out of the bus, I felt like I was slapped in the face. It was like twenty hair dryers blowing on your face and body all at once and I'm not exaggerating. The city had a foggy appearance from the heat and humidity. I started cursing to myself and mumbling to the taxi driver about what it would be like over here in July or August, and whether they were really sane to be living in such a place. That night at the residence I swear the walls were oozing steam onto us, the electricity schedule was also the same as Baghdad now, 3 on, 3 off alternately (a total of 12 hours power a day), with a few minor outages during the 3 hours you are supposed to have it on, and some cheating going on with the 3 hours off which works something like this: it goes out 10 minutes before schedule and it's back 10-15 minutes after the three hours, so you are robbed of about 20 minutes from your luxurious 3 hours of power. I screamed at my cook when he insisted that the sharji (hot humid wind from the sea) hadn't started yet, meaning there is even worse to come, I really wanted to cry after hearing that.

Anyway, it wasn't just the heat, I was also greeted with bullets. As soon as I had entered the hospital, suitcase in hand, the sinister familiar sound of AK-47's ringed all around me. I charged for the doctors residence and for a moment I thought the hospital was under attack. FPS guards hurriedly closed the gates while others were running back and forth in the hospital yard shouting to each other obviously in panic. From the sound of it I gathered that a fierce battle was taking place just outside and I started considering whether I should just flee from behind. A few injured people caught in the cross fire were brought into the emergency hall, and some women were wailing. The shooting calmed down a little bit and sounded relatively distant after about 20 minutes, that was when I plucked up some courage to go take a look. It seemed that a gang of 20 armed thugs in 2 pickup trucks had attacked the main police station in the village which is just across the street from the hospital, they were Mi'dan (former marsh Arabs) from the militant Garamsha tribes. Some of their relatives were arrested for carjacking and banditry, so the assailants were practicing their democratic rights to protest against that. Brits showed up to backup the police, and 9 of the attackers were arrested according to the locals, the rest of them had fled. Overall it was a jolly welcome home party for me.

The Mi'dan tribes are a big problem in these parts, as most Basrawis tell me. When the marshes were dried years ago, they migrated from their original habitat and most of them settled in the Basrah governorate along the main Amarah-Basrah road, some even went as far south into the Faw peninsula. They are largely uneducated and simple folks and also the most impoverished in the country, however they are notorious for being outlaws. In fact most carjacking incidents in the south are attributed to them, and they are pretty open about it too from what I have seen so far. They are also actively involved in smuggling and looting high-voltage power cables. At my village in Basrah, pylons have been replaced about ten times during the last few months, and they keep coming back. At Al-Der which is a small town about 30 miles north of Basrah city, an Iraqi journalist accompanied by a friend stopped to replace a flat tire, the mechanic told him to run with his life because he was attracting attention and a lot of people were eying them like vultures awaiting their prey. The journalist didn't take the warning seriously because an IP checkpoint was in sight. Just as he was about to leave though he was intercepted almost immediately by 2 pickup trucks and was forced to get out of his car at gun point. He ran to the IP checkpoint asking for help, the policemen apologised heartily and told him that they couldn't interfere for tribal reasons. The bewildered journalist was pointed to the house of the Sheikh by some locals, and shortly later he was face to face with relatives of the carjackers who asked for 3 million Dinars in return for his own car, funny thing his host insisted that he stay for lunch. I don't know if he payed them or not but he has been publishing his story in the papers and he went to see the Basrah governor Wa'el Abdul Latif (also a GC member). Carjacking and banditry on the road continues however and in daylight. I was advised at the garage to take the bus to Basrah instead of a taxi as I usually do. Two of our colleagues were also robbed of all their possessions on their way back to Baghdad and left stranded on the road. Between Basrah and Amarrah I have counted about 15 IP checkpoints but it appears that they are in fact all useless.

Basrah has been largely quiet for the last two weeks, an occasional mortar is fired randomly and a roadside bomb explosion every now and then, but other than these 'normal' incidents nothing much has been going on. What attracted my attention was that posters of Muqtada Al-Sadr which used to be all over the place are now mostly gone, I could even recognise some which were half torn off the walls. Abdul Sattar Al-Bahadili (Sadr's representative in Basrah) has reportedly been recruiting suicide bombers, a few people here say that 20 of Sadr's followers signed up, and there is news of an anonymous group in Iran that has been doing the same. People also say that Al-Bahadili (who now poses as a pious cleric seeking British slaves) used to be a comedian before the war, and that he once acted in a theatre play in the role of Khomeini. Interesting. Other than that, Basrawis are now pretty open in their criticism of Sadr, I believe the latest statements from Al-Sistani and the Marji'iyah in Najaf (which have been intentionally downplayed by the media) have a lot to do with that. A couple of months ago nobody would even dare to speak out against Sadr, but today for example, a medical aide at my hospital announced in front of a whole room of people, and to my greatest surprise, that 'Muqtada is a huge source of embarrassment for us'.