Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Basra Sees Menace from the East

Many people in southern city believe Iran is carrying out assassinations as part of a strategy to extend influence.
By Adnan K. Karim

From the rooftops of Abu Khasib, just south of the city of Basra, the minarets of Iranian mosques can be seen across the 500-metre-wide Shatt al-Arab waterway which separates Iran and Iraq.


Less than two decades ago, Iranian trenches and mortar positions would have been clearly visible from here, as the front lines of an army that stood poised for years hoping to overrun Iraq’s second city.


Today, Basra is once again vulnerable to incursions, residents say. Security and border controls are in disarray and it takes only fifteen minutes to row across the water to the city's southern suburbs. But this time, many claim, the threat comes not from soldiers but from spies, smugglers, and speculators.


Basra and the corner of Iran across the Shatt al-Arab have similar populations – both are predominantly Shia, and both are Arabic-speaking.


However, the long years of war created a legacy of mistrust, and today Basra residents are convinced that among the Iranians who now cross the water – some of them illegally – there are agents sent to carry out assassinations and economic sabotage.


With the Iranian border only around 20 kilometres away from downtown Basra, the city found itself almost on the front line in the Iran-Iraq war. It became a base for Iraqi offensives and a target for Iranian ones. In 1986, the latter pushed to within 10 km of the city limits, launching intense artillery barrages which sent tens of thousands of people fleeing to other parts of the country.


Although memories of the 1980-88 war are now fading, many in Basra remain convinced that their neighbours are still plotting against them. They believe Iranians are behind a recent wave of assassinations of former Ba’athists and military officers – although neither the US-led coalition nor the Iraqi police claim to have captured a single Iranian agent.


Hundreds of Ba’athist officials were murdered by fellow Iraqis in the months following the US-led invasion – victims of revenge killings by the families of those killed under the old regime. However, the recent spate of assassinations has included targets who are long retired, and who are well-liked in their communities. This wave of killings, local people say, coincides with an influx of Iranian traders, which leads them to conclude that foreign assassins are at work.


Basra resident Fallah Hassan says that he saw his neighbour Taha Hamed Khafi, a former Ba’athist “morale officer” who retired in 1992, gunned down by masked men as he attended a memorial service for a friend in September. The gunmen then escaped by bicycle. “You are reaping the harvest of your work from 20 years ago,” the killers reportedly told Khafi as they opened fire.


Unlike other Ba’athists, many of whom either fled or barricaded themselves inside their houses after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, Khafi had moved about the city more or less openly in the months before his death, according to his neighbour, who took that as a sign that he saw nothing to fear from fellow Iraqis.


Iraqi military sources point out that the morale officers, responsible for indoctrinating and motivating the troops, were particularly hated by Iranian intelligence, who made them high-priority targets. Iran’s memories of war are so bitter, the Iraqis claim, that hit-lists drawn up during the war remain active even today.


Kanaan al-Yasari, an engineer from the middle-class al-Khaleej al-Arabi neighborhood, heard gunfire one September morning and ran out into the street to find the slain body of his neighbour, retired security officer Jassem Jubara. Like Khafi, Jubara had good relations with his neighbours, taking few precautions for his security. Yasari, too, is convinced that the killers were foreigners.


Engineer Maan Karim, meanwhile, says that he became convinced that Iranian agents were active in his neighborhood when a pamphleteer handed him an Arabic translation of a sermon by Ayatollah Ali Khameini in Tehran, an apparent attempt to promote Iran’s supreme leader as a religious authority among Basra’s Shia. Many Iraqis believe Iran sees the postwar chaos as an opportunity to extend its influence in the Shia south.


British press officer Captain Hisham Hilawi, however, claims that the coalition has “had no problems so far” with Iranian intelligence in the Basra area.


Local security head Colonel Mohammed Kadhem al-Ali confirms that dozens of former ruling party members have been killed in Basra. He refuses to speculate over who might be responsible, however, except to suggest that the Ba’athists were killed in revenge for “crimes against the people”.


Whether or not any Iranian agents are active in Basra, the Iranian traders who have flocked to Iraq since border controls collapsed after the war are clear for all to see. In the minds of many local residents, they pose almost as great a danger as spies and assassins.


In Hamdan, an untidy sprawl of workshops and factories on the southern outskirts of Basra, Iranian traders move from shop to shop looking for bargains on spare parts. Outside, green Mercedes flatbed trucks - their vehicle of choice – clog up the streets.


Trader Taha Wazzan has just sold an Iranian a spare automobile part for 150,000 dinars, nearly double what he would expect an Iraqi to pay. “Iranians export watermelons and onions to Basra and in exchange they buy all kinds of new and used spare parts, as well as engineering and electric equipment, generators, and copper,” he said. “They will pay any price, since they benefit from both a favourable exchange rate and the absence of any customs duties or border controls.”


Iraqi merchants say that in addition to encouraging looting, as the copper often comes from power lines, the Iranians have stripped Basra of spare parts that are needed to get the economy back on track. Over a decade of sanctions have left industrial parts in short supply, they say, but Iraq's isolation from the rest of the region means that merchants will often sell things much more cheaply than in neighbouring countries. Some items, such as the outboard motors that are essential to a population dependent on river traffic, have sold out completely, they say.


Throughout the country, cross-border traders seem to Iraqis like a plundering army, buying up necessities at double the price and leaving the locals without. Turks and Kuwaitis, for example, were blamed for a chronic shortage of petrol during the summer. In Basra, however, the legacy of hostility leaves many Iraqis convinced that the Iranians are not just out for profit, but are trying to sabotage the economy.


“I know that these Iranians are buying up everything to destroy the Iraqi economy, so I don’t sell anything to them,” said Abu Abbas, a trader in industrial and maritime goods in Hamdan. “God would not forgive me.”


Adnan Karim, a former rear admiral in the Iraqi navy, is an IWPR contributor.