Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Basra has now reached a level of stability that still eludes some parts of Iraq. Although the British army may point to years of experience in Northern Ireland, this is never a good analogy unless no-go areas and colourful murals start to spring up in Umm-Qasr.

However, the problems of reconstruction including a policy that favours US companies to repair an infrastructure built by the Soviets, French and Germans results in warped priorities. The case of the airconditioners at a dysfunctional power plant in Basra is telling:

A clue lies at the Najibiya power station in Basra, Iraq's second largest city located south of Baghdad. Sitting uninstalled between two decrepit turbines were massive brand new air-conditioning units shipped all the way from York Corporation in Oklahoma. Pasted on one side of each unit was a glittering sticker proudly displaying the "Made in USA" sign, complete with the Stars and Stripes.

It's just what the Iraqis don't need at this time. Since May, Yaarub Jasim, general director for the southern region of Iraq's electricity ministry, has been pleading with Bechtel to deliver urgently needed spare parts for their antiquated turbines. "We asked Bechtel many times to please help us because the demand for power is very high and we should cover this demand," Jasim said. "We asked many times, many times."

Two weeks ago, Bechtel finally came through. Before it could deliver any of Jasim's requirements, however, Bechtel transported the air-conditioners, useless until the start of summer six months from now.

But even if the air-con units become eventually useful, emphasized plant manager Hamad Salem, other spare parts were much more important. The air-conditioners, Salem pointed out, were not even in the list of the equipment and machine components that they submitted to Bechtel.

Security is also an increasing concern for the Iraqis. However, as our soldiers prepare for Christmas in the south of Iraq, thay are finding that age-old preconceptions of military behaviour have to be curbed in Iraq where men are tactile and women are forbidden:

Also on the danger list were women and some tabloid newspapers which tend to show more female flesh than the religious Iraqis think permissible.

As for women, the servicemen are warned not to engage in any conversation with local females which is seen as highly disrespectful, especially to their husbands, father or brothers. Men, however, can make long speeches of greeting and are very tactile. Blokes holding hands or kissing in the street is normal.

(23.24, 24th December 2003)


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