Sunday, April 27, 2003
Britain in Iraq - 27th April 2003, 18.20

Given that the British media appears to be concentrating upon the role of the United States in Baghdad, there appears to be a domestic gap as far as reportage of our own record in Iraq occurs. One could argue that the argument on public interest would demand such coverage, but it is now outweighed by a desire to appeal to an international audience and maintain an anti-American agenda. I had to listen to Channel 4 news last night to learn that US troops had tried to help those injured by the blast at the arms dump but came under fire, preventing them from admistering aid. This fact curiously omitted from the BBC report which dwelt upon the proximity of the dump and the damage caused but neglected to provide details that could show US troops in a positive light.

The Palestinians are reporting from their State Information Service that the British used Israeli cluster shells during the battle for Basra. It's an attempt to blacken the reputation of Satan's Mini-Me even further in the Arab world but provides evidence that the British Army was willing to use all of the weapons at their disposal, without being hamstrung by pseudo-humanitarian considerations.

British engineers are still attempting to restore basic services in Basra, two weeks after the fall of the city. There is some speculation that sabotage may be the cause for these delays. The International Committe for the Red Cross noted that,

"It looks like sabotage, continuous sabotage. Who would steal elements of a transformer station in the core of the infrastructure?" Andres Kruesi, head of mission for the ICRC in southern Iraq, told AFP. A humanitarian worker speculated the sabotage could be the work of Saddam Hussein loyalists keen to see the failure of British forces that routed his regime out of the southern city earlier this month. Water and power supplies in Basra have improved in recent days but have not yet attained the levels of before the start of the US-led war on March 20. Kruesi noted that Basra was relatively unscathed by the bombing and that the infrastucture remained "fairly intact". "Looters caused more damage to the water and electricity infrastructure than the bombing," said Kruesi, who has been posted in Basra for a year-and-a-half.

Despite these postwar setbacks, there are some positive signs. The oilfields are now producing crude, although the refinery is not yet operational. The United Arab Emirates Red Crescent has provided a water purification pump that provides 250,000 gallons of fresh drinking water per day and the university is beginning to reopen its doors (if they had any, they were looted).

There is a complete division between two parts of Basra's society. On the one hand, the poor associated the university with Saddam's state and burned or looted vast portions of the buildings. Most appear to privilege the knowledge of imams quoting from the Qu'ran and have no interest or awareness of science, technology or the liberal arts. For only barbarians burn libraries.

The mobs set the university library alight. Rooms that once held aisles and aisles of books in English and Arabic now house piles of ashes and burned metal shelving. A fire still smoldered in a room that once contained statistics books. Elsewhere, wooden doors and their frames had been pried away. A painted sign at the entrance to the English department said, "Wholeheartedly, Iraqis Love Saddam Forever."

Yet, the academic staff moved rapidly to de-Ba'ath themselves and set up new governing structures in a promising rebirth of civil society.

The first step taken by Basra academics, less than three weeks after the war here ended, has been to remove deans and department heads who owed their positions more to their Baath Party connections than to their professional achievements. In the engineering department, for example, the previous dean, sensing change, departed for Baghdad. "It was clear to him," a professor of marine engineering said dryly, "that he was not wanted."

With the old government gone and a new one still not in place, professors gathered and made their own rules. They chose to vote on their new leadership, department by department. In the College of Science, Jassim, a charismatic former Basra soccer star who earned his doctorate in Scotland, won with 73 of 98 votes cast. The former dean got less than a dozen votes.

The entire structure of the 20,000-student university will be replaced, professors said today as they gathered to assess the damage. New curriculums must be designed, eliminating the scorned National Education 101 and its two successor courses, which focused on the glories of Hussein's Baath Party. The practice of academic freedom, unknown in recent times, must be relearned, they said.

On the political front, the coalition forces have found it very difficult to co-opt non-Ba'athist local elites that are able to appeal to the Iraqis and run Basra's services efficiently without corruption. Two candidates, tainted by association with the fallen regime, hold some influence: Sheik Muzahim Mustafa al-Kanan set up a council two weeks ago and is now rivalled by a businessman, Ghalab Kubba. Competition for British influence in postwar Basra involves the urban elite, the heads of the local tribes and the imams, who act as inconsistent proxies for Iran.

As Ba'athist and Fedayeen saboteurs and terrorists remain at large, it is clear that Basra remains a difficult locality to police and govern.


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