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

  • 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.

    A picture of a genial Tom Cruise hangs above the door to the King beauty parlor in downtown Basra. For more than a decade, Sameer Abdalhadi has been snipping and shaving in the cramped salon with its display case of Dr. James Freckle and Acne Soap and Muscular Man perfume. On this February afternoon, he gives street vendor Mustafa Abdalsada a modish haircut and shaves his beard, leaving just a hint of designer stubble. Local men cultivate beards or luxuriant mustaches of the kind that make even despots look avuncular, but Abdalhadi encourages his clients to try something new. The barber, driven like many other Basrawis to erase reminders of a painful past, is giving his battle-scarred city a makeover, one man at a time.

    Remaking Basra is no small task. Caught in the cross fire of the Iran-Iraq war and Iraq's occupation and retreat from Kuwait, brutally punished for uprisings against Saddam Hussein only to see his tyranny give way to the mob rule of Shi'ite militias, both the city and the province of Basra have sustained deep wounds over three decades. British forces and government agencies based in Basra after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion expected to be received as liberators. But they failed to convince locals that they could deliver on their promises of reconstruction and development, leaving young Basrawis prey to the blandishments of the militias, says Hilary Synnott, the British diplomat who presided over southern Iraq from July 2003 to January 2004. "In the early days, the Western narrative was that the people shooting at us were al-Qaeda and former regime loyalists," Synnott says. "That narrative continued long after the development of an insurgency [led by] disaffected youth who didn't want us in their country."

    The British lost the battle to stabilize Basra and spent four years dealing with an increasingly chaotic province. Things changed for the better only after March 2008, when local units of the Iraqi army — trained by the Brits and in control of the region from September 2007 — launched an operation to disperse the militias. Now violence has been replaced by an uneasy calm, and with Britain preparing to withdraw all but a small rump of its 4,100 troops by May 31, Basra is daring to dream of peace. ( See pictures of Basra back in business. )

    "I'm probably being wildly over the top, but I do find this an incredibly encouraging place to be right now," says Nigel Haywood, Britain's consul general in the city. The transformation from battleground to bustling municipality has been so rapid that it's natural to question whether a return to violence might not be as swift. Major General Andy Salmon, the Briton who commands the multinational forces in the region, believes that a tipping point has been reached. "I am confident Basra is not going to go back to the previous darkness," he says.

    Talking About the Future
    Barber Abdalhadi works late and without a bodyguard. When the militias held sway, he employed security and had to close up shop at 4 p.m. "If I had stayed later, they would have come to kill me," he says. The militias declared that shaving was un-Muslim. Gangs took advantage of the pervasive fear to run protection rackets. In 2007, Abdalhadi's friend and colleague Shareef was murdered with a drill, but Abdalhadi continued to ply his trade. "I'm the breadwinner," he says.

    The militias also targeted women they deemed guilty of loose behavior, so sisters-in-law Yusra Mahmoud and Saleema Abdalhussein used to hurry home before dark. Now on a balmy February evening, they linger in the amusement park overlooking the Shatt al-Arab waterway and discuss their children. Mahmoud has five, ages 7 to 19; Abdalhussein has just one, a son born in 1981 — not long before her husband, a conscript, was killed fighting Iran. "We're always talking about the future of the children and what it holds for them," says Mahmoud. "We've been through many wars as a generation. We hope our children will have happier lives."

    See pictures of Iraq's revival.

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