The Battle for Basra

The people of Basra oppose the regime but they will not rise up until they are certain Saddam Hussein is falling.

The Battle for Basra

The people of Basra oppose the regime but they will not rise up until they are certain Saddam Hussein is falling.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

Saddam Hussein has ordered his forces in Basra to kill not just anyone who rises against the regime but everyone who refuses to fight against the Americans. This order has been transmitted openly over state television. The people of Basra want to get rid of the gang that has kidnapped the country and subjected them to decades of harassment. But this time, it is not so easy to rise up.

There has been no uprising in Basra thus far. There has been fighting between some of the people and some Ba'athists, with about 30 people killed and wounded. But so far the environment for uprising is not right.

Saddam in 2003 is different from Saddam in 1991. He is weaker, but he has learned. Most importantly, he does not trust the people. In 1991, when the Allies went to war against him after he invaded Kuwait, Saddam armed forces in Basra. On this occasion he has sent outside forces into the city - and these forces have a plan to prevent any uprising.

A week into the war, the Iraqi regime still has control, albeit weakened, in Basra. Forewarned of attack, the regime made the necessary preparations. The Ba'ath Party headquarters hit and destroyed by artillery had been evacuated some time earlier. Ba'ath Party fighters and commandos of the Fedayeen of Saddam have taken off their uniforms and are passing themselves off as civilians.

The ordinary people of Basra have mixed feelings. They have been waiting for 12 years to liberate themselves again, but they know that things are different now.

In 1991, Ba'athists were in their headquarters. They were in one area and could be attacked. Today they are in the street. In 1991, the Iraqi army had been driven in disarray from Kuwait and there were a lot of weapons in the hands of ordinary people conscripted into the army. There was hunger and thirst and degradation. Even the army was feeling humiliated. The war for Kuwait was not the army's war; it was Saddam's war.

But this war was not started by Saddam; his forces have to know they cannot win before they will be willing to turn against him.

In 1991 the people rose up - and the United States watched as they were put down. The losses during the suppression of the uprising were much greater than the losses during the war. Because of this bad experience, the people of Basra say they will only rise up at the right moment. That moment will be when Saddam is gone or his regime has lost control.

Basra was the first city to rise up in the South in 1991, in part because there was a rumour that Saddam had been killed or run away. It knows the price of failure - and not just because of what happened in 1991. In 1998, the regime staged a car accident that killed the man recognised as the supreme religious authority of Iraqi Shias: Sayyed Mohammed Sadr. Basra rebelled. The regime cracked down hard and in doing so razed the city's three mosques.

Basra today is a very degraded city. The cumulative effect of years of Ba'athist misrule is a shortage of water, electricity, schools and hospitals. Only one of three hospitals is working and even this lacks all sorts of equipment. The people don't mind being without all these things, but the British and the Americans have to create the same environment for uprising as there was in 1991.

If they decide to storm Basra - a city of more than a million people - it is vital that they liaise beforehand with people inside. The people of Basra think they can liberate themselves if they have assistance. Even some of the Fedayeen of Saddam are said to be anxious and fearing for their lives. If the coalition contacts cities like Basra, they could collapse quickly. But there is no evidence, as far as I know, of any serious contacts by the Americans with the ordinary people inside. The Americans are not investing in the right people.

For the future, the most important thing is that the Americans and the British treat the people with respect. Some of Saddam's men have put on headbands with slogans saying: "God is great". The danger is that the Americans will blame the Shias of the South - and perceived Iranian influence on them - for any crimes committed by Saddam's men. America understands little about Iraqi Shias. Iraq is not Iran or Lebanon. Iraqis are a multi-cultured people. Even the most extreme Iraqi Shia is a moderate.

Dr. Ali Hassani, an Iraqi engineer, is head of the Basra Association in London.

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