Thursday, January 29, 2009

Update from Basra: Iraqi elections begin

Elections started on Jan 28th in Iraq, It is the day the military votes. The general election is on the 31st. I didn’t manage to get myself in a position to cover the first part of the voting as getting around in Basra is not an easy affair; hence no images of the news. Instead I am posting portraits of some of Basra’s leading businessmen who have made the transition from heading state run companies to private ones. They are some of the leaders CMOC (Civil Military Operations Center) are working with in and around the city.

The city is shut down to any coalition military activity unless it is to back up Iraqi forces. I was out of luck since I didn’t have a pre-organized trip planed to cover this part of the election, but we will cover the general election. The hard-earned bloody victory from “The Charge Of the Knights” that restored the city to a state of relative stability has made the voting possible.
What does stability and safety translate to here? Getting off the base requires travel by convoy - the smallest convoy requires four vehicles, and if a VIP comes, that numbers more then doubles. Convoys are mixture of humvees, MRAPs and armored security vehicles, though the latter two are too big for some of the streets and do the opposite of keeping a military presence low key, a new policy being phased into practice. Movement regulation policies are in transition too, as are many other rules, since the Americans will take over from the Brits by the summer and have different approaches on many fronts. A tremendous amount of paperwork is required for every trip. Doing anything spontaneously is highly improbable but times and days of travel, change without notice.

Up until a few months ago, any trips off base were risky. Now they transpire without incident, enabling branches of the military such as CMOC to get projects up and running, supplementing what the British started. CMOC and the British are working together – though there is undeniable rivalry from within. Each country has different priorities. Despite that, things are getting accomplished. Both the American and the British are getting parts of there agenda pushed through: all of which benefits the Iraqis. The focus of the military is on rebuilding society and stabilizing it, so the new government can run efficiently and keep control of Iraq.

With the Brits planning to pull out, they’re thinking about their legacy, according to Captain Robert Lansden, USNR . Basra is the place where most of the British forces have been stationed. Many Brits who I have spoken to are pleased with the degree of progress here. Colonel Dickie Winchester of the British Army only sees only good coming to Basra, as he trusts the foundation the coalition has built is strong enough to ensure a successful transfer of power. He believes the last step is to help build the police force and that the Americans have the know how - to train the civil police force, the job now of the National Guard. Lt. Colonel Sharky Ward too is proud of his work in Basra, especially about a monument that will be erected in the Al Hyyaniyah honoring victims of “Chemical Ali” who were forced by Saddam’s army to drink gasoline and then shot and left to die. The site their bodies were exhumed will have a new memorial.
Despite the fact Basra is relatively safe not all are convinced it will last. Some Iraqis have hope, yet others like Capt. Nazar of the Iraqi oil tanker Tiger, don’t. He has seen strife since the Irian Iraq war up till now. The port he uses, Khor Az Zubar, hasn’t seen any improvements for 30 years.

The more hopeful citizens are the ones that have received funds. After many broken promises money has swayed them, as does the kind of follow up CMOC is providing.
Abuld Altalid, who manages Ib Nmajid, Iraq's largest steel fabrication company received a contract to build a new bridge. It will replace the pontoon bridges Sadam Hussein built to purposely cripple the ports and is a source of pride to Basra. The new bridge, a source of pride in Basra, will open the way for a recovery of the economy of the region. Alulb’s factory sat dormant until Navy Captain Lansden who runs CMOC, met with his staff. Lansden understands the importance of rebuilding the local economy. He broke with the coalition’s policy of using foreign firms to rebuild Iraq by hiring Abuld’s company to build Basra’s new bridge.

Mr. Hussein Mohmud Abdullah, who is running for governor, runs the five ports. He too has hope in his country’s future. Money is flowing in his direction. The British put all of the funds into Un Qusar, Iraqi largest port. CMOC in currently trying to invigorate the other four smaller ports. Money is being made available at Al Makal Port (the first step fixing the cranes) and Khor Az Zubar where they currently they can only handle 14 ships a day.

Rebuilding and invigorating the economy, winning the hearts and minds of the people of Iraq, seems possible in Basra, as long as the money keeps flowing.

How many will come out to vote? About 10% of the population, I’ve heard. Safety isn’t the factor according to the Iraqi’s I have spoken with. They don’t believe their vote has any value so they wont participate. However, there are hundreds of positions open in Basra alone, and thousands of candidates running nationwide; evidently some Iraqis are vested in the process. A working democracy doesn’t come overnight (America, the torchbearers of democracy have some cleaning up to do in its’ own), nor does security, but Iraq is that much closer to both.

It is hard to see an end in sight for the need of coalition intervention to maintain stability in Iraq. From what I have heard and seen, safety is still relative, not reality.

images - top left to right- Ships at Um Quaser / Navy Captain Lansden at machine repair shop, part of Ib Nmajid factory in Basra/ Abuld Altalid manager of Ib Nmajib bottem- left to right Navy Captian Lansden at port Um Quaser/ Mr Hussien Mohmud Abdallh the assitnace for the director for all the ports/Navy Captian Lansden/ Capt. Nazar Iskander /Lt. Colonel Sharky Ward /Colonel (Dickie) Winchester / Cranes at Al Makal Port


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