Rebuilding Basra

Its services may be woeful and its streets full of trash, but Iraq's southern city is coming back to life at last

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Abbie Trayler-Smith / Panos

Downtown Basra has regained some of its bustle and buzz and stays open into the evening, as fears of violence recede.

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When Mahmoud voted in the regional elections in January, she opted for candidates she felt could offer "sustained security, jobs for young people and a better Iraq." Voting went off without violence in Basra (the only incident came when an overenthusiastic Iraqi policeman fired a gun into the air to encourage voters into a polling station). The bloc affiliated with Iraq's Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, benefited from his action against the militias. In Basra, messages of national unity played better than did religious or sectarian appeals. "We have a new breed of politicians who can take Basra into a new phase," says Emad al-Battat, representative to Basra of Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric, Sayyed Ali al-Sistani. "The fact that Iraqis chose secular politicians over religious ones does not mean Iraq has become any less religious. But the top priority of the Iraqi people is national unity." He adds, "The politicians made promises. Now they have to walk the walk."

That walk is strewed with trash; the streets of Basra are full of stinking tangles of plastic and organic matter. Indeed, since last fall, private polling undertaken by the British government has seen the poor state of public services and infrastructure leapfrog security as a popular concern. Phone-in programs on the local radio station are dominated by discussions of sewage and the electrical brownouts that hit the city several times a day. (See pictures of life returning to Iraq's streets.)

Tackling these problems is essential if the economy is to keep growing. Unemployment currently stands at 17% and reaches 30% among younger Basrawis. The provision of jobs and services is key to stability, says Salmon. "The only people who listened [to local complaints] were [the militias]. That's why Hizballah did well elsewhere. They promise to tend to the needs of the people."

Improved security has enabled Britain's aid ministry to push ahead with infrastructure improvements and plans to woo foreign investors. Michael Wareing, head of the Basra Development Commission, reports that "about $9 billion" of proposed foreign investment is on the table, with just half of that interested in Basra's oil and gas industry. "There really is a significant spread, and it's increasing as the security improves," Wareing says.

Eventually, those deals will translate into new opportunities for Basrawis. For now, their city faces years of struggle to rebuild and heal. One essential resource, says Salmon, is optimism — among Basrawis as well as their soon-to-depart overlords — that the corner has been turned. "My mission has been to protect that optimism, shape it and build it," he says.

Salmon can find some of it among Basra's children. At a multifaith school run by the Chaldean church, 4-year-olds wrestle with the universal question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Several want to be doctors. Allawi plans a career in business. Muqtada wants to be a soldier. It doesn't seem unrealistic to hope that he won't be needed to keep the peace in his own city.

See pictures of U.S. troops' 5 years in Iraq.

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