Three years after the invasion of Iraq, one of its largest cities is beset by disappointment and fear. Residents of Basra say they feel forgotten by their own political leaders and embittered by unkept promises of help by the U.S. and British forces that ousted Saddam Hussein.
Situated in the overwhelmingly Shiite south, there is little of the sectarian violence now common in Baghdad. There are rarely car bombs, but assassinations are on the rise. Basra faces a different type of insurgency than that plaguing the region around the capital. The enemy is harder to identify and often closely associated with competing Shiite militia groups, many of whom are linked to mainstream religious political parties and tribes.
After the U.S.-led invasion, Basra was seen as the future economic engine of Iraq -- a city whose natural resources could make it rival the wealthiest cities that dot the Persian Gulf. But little has been done to improve the crumbling infrastructure. Though it sits on a sea of oil, those riches are not evident. The city is awash in sewage, which collects everywhere in fetid pools. There is no system of garbage collection. Electricity is only now at prewar levels, which, even then, were far from adequate.
A respected moderate cleric who has kept his distance from political parties says people have lost all hope that conditions will improve.
A senior Iraqi official, who asked that his name not be used because he fears for his life, confirms that the Islamist political parties are involved in smuggling, gun-running, corruption and assassinations. Last May, the Basra police chief said publicly that half of his forces belonged to militias and that he trusted only one-fourth of his officers.
The political parties deny that they have militias or anything to do with the violence. The Basra spokesman for radical cleric Muqtada Sadr insists his organization has been reformed, and Sadr's militia here is now a cultural educational institution. The local leader of the prominent political party Sciri, the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution In Iraq, denies that its Iranian-trained militia is a source of trouble. Both blame the British, who are responsible for the Basra region.
Criticism of the British has been on the rise. Responding to popular pressure, Basra's provincial council voted last month to sever ties with the British troops. The final straw was the release of a video shot in 2004 depicting British soldiers beating Iraqi boys.
British troops recently launched a comprehensive effort to cleanse and rehabilitate the police force, similar to U.S. efforts further north. Citing improvements, the British plan to cut their force levels to 7,000 from 8,000.
Many in Basra are quick to call for an end to what they say is an occupation that has worn out its welcome. But many don't want the British to leave yet, fearing a power vacuum that neighboring Iran might seek to fill.