The prime minister’s State of Law List coalition won a decisive victory, bringing an end to four years of rule by the Shia al-Fadhila party. But having taken power smoothly, the new government soon revealed an account deficit of $100 million and announced that it could not afford to draw up a proper budget.
The government also announced the launch of several corruption cases involving government departments and private companies, but no information on these cases has yet been released. Sources told Niqash that the outgoing al-Fadhila party had left its successor with poorly-maintained infrastructure, a bankrupted treasury and an accumulation of debts.
Tensions between the provincial council, headed by lawyer Jaber Ameen Jaber, and local government spilled over into public accusations, as unemployment and a strapped social security fund increased public pressure on municipal councils.
Waleed Taleb, head of the municipal council of Zubair, accused the provincial council in Basra of excluding municipal councils. Taleb claimed that the provincial officials never meet with the local councils to hear their demands.
Relations soured further when Muhammad Shaker, head of the municipal councils, was arrested and assaulted by guards of the regional governor.
Shaker was detained for two hours and suffered a broken arm while other municipal council members have been openly insulted or attacked for criticizing the governor for the decline in municipal council services in the province.
But the provincial council also had to respond to the increased salinity of Shatt al-Arab’s river water, the result of Iran ’s closure of supply from the al-Karon and al-Karkha rivers.
The level of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers has declined and the surge of seawater which followed reached as far as al-Qarna, 78 kilometres north of Basra ’s council centre. The surge forced farmers out of their villages, killed thousands of livestock and precipitated an environmental catastrophe.
Local government sent water supplies to Faw and al-Siba districts in response but failed to placate the local population, who viewed the move as an impractical, short-term solution.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited the area in the aftermath of the catastrophe together with a delegation of ministers from Basra . Al-Maliki has already offered support to the Basra government of Shiltagh Abboud Sharagh, proposing a central government contribution of $0.5 for each barrel of oil exported from Basra . But some observers said that the timing of al-Maliki’s visit was influenced by the election.
Bucca closes and crime continues
2009 saw the closure of the US military’s Camp Bucca detention center in Umm Qasr, 40 kilometers south of Basra . Bucca, once Iraq ’s largest prison, was handed over to the Iraq authorities while the camp’s water desalination plant was taken over by local government.
Security improved in central Basra province in 2009 but armed robberies by specialist gangs remained a problem. Two gold shops 20 kilometers west of Basra were robbed in an early morning attack carried out by a group of masked men carrying fire arms fitted with silencers.
In an attack on the exchanges offices in Basra City , which lies close to an Iraqi army checkpoint, two employees were killed and a third was injured.
A gang wearing police costumes robbed Basra ’s Fine Art College, taking with them the salaries of its employees, and evaded capture.
Abbas al-Jourani, a member of the Iraqi Communist Party in Basra , claimed that recent violations were linked to the government and to the rise in youth unemployment. Al-Jourani said that “security improvements were [very] much linked to the absence of the militias’ violence, despite the fact that conditions in the province remained unsettled.”
Ghanem Hannoun, head of Basra provincial council’s security committee told Niqash that there has been recently some raids to arrest the perpetrators of the recent attacks, especially of the armed theft militias involved in al-Zubair, al-Maqal and in Abi Khusaib.
Hannoun believes that the names provided by arrested criminals and the improvement in intelligence gathering and experience lay behind the successful arrests.
But the arrests also revealed that a number of policemen and facilities protection personnel had been involved in the robberies. One gang of thieves was discovered using police cars and several of the gangs had been working together with members of police in Dhi Qar province.
Perhaps more worryingly, Basra ’s international airport was shelled by rockets. Officials claim the rockets were used by al-Quds army cells, which have links with Iran . Further incidents included the murder of three Iraqi policemen in al-Zubair and al-Qibla districts and the escape of three detainees from al-Mina detention centre. (An ensuing government decision to ban visits to the centre was reversed following a strike.)
Iraqi fishermen faced continued danger from Kuwaiti coastguards and Iranian forces, as their boats were confiscated under the pretext of having entered the territorial waters of the two countries. The sub-governor of Faw has said there is a Kuwaiti-Iranian policy at play behind the arrests, since Iraq still lacks effective naval forces.
Culture and economy: Slow stirrings
Basra was selected as Iraq’s capital of culture for 2009 and as the location for the 6th session of the Mirbid Poetry session, but poor cultural infrastructure and heavy monitoring of artists by religious parties hampered progress. Religious parties complain that generous arts grants from central government cannot be justified and are simply government PR exercises.
Hussain Ibrahim al-Sudani, director of the Basra Cultural House, told Niqash that many exhibitions and musical and dance shows had been put on through the year, but the celebrations to mark the close of Basra ’s 12 months as cultural capital were poorly attended.
But Basra ’s economic clout was widely recognized in 2009, as it hosted economic conferences in April, May, October and December and was described as Iraq ’s economic capital by the visiting Iraqi Minister of Planning.
Yet despite extensive participation in these conferences by British and American diplomats, British investment companies represented at the meetings were reluctant to commit to investments in the region, citing security fears. A Japanese business delegation which visited in December also returned home without signing major contracts.
There are now growing calls to name Basra as Iraq ’s chief industrial city, a move that may quell ongoing calls for increased regional autonomy.