I promised to tell you more about the situation here. I will tell you loads when I get back. It’s absolutely fascinating, like a real time experiment in political theory. Except it’s a bugger for the people we are ‘experimenting’ with.
Basra now is effectively an anarchy, a sea of conflicting power groups. As I briefed the CO and the Bde Comd (ed. Commanding Officer and Brigade Commander), you can’t have politics without first having security, and you can’t build security through political systems. Interestingly enough they both agreed. We are trying to police Basra as if it was somewhere in England, policing by consent. That does not work after thirty five years of dictatorship and in a country where people think democracy means “the people will decide”.
The worrying comparison we now get is with Saddam Hussein (SH). After the 91 uprising Basra was far worse damaged than anything we did to it – we barely touched it. Yet in one month he had basic amenities back because he shot looters. After three months we still haven’t got reliable electricity or clean water, because we try to arrest them. Every Iraqi I have met agrees on two things, no matter what group they come from:
You must shoot more people Not imprison, not arrest, you must kill them. Otherwise they will not stop.
The other thing is they all hate SH and BP (Ba’ath Party) with a passion. Consider it from the point of view of the looters. You live in shit, your life expectancy is low, there is – at the moment – no economic activity you can improve by, and your only experience is of a gangster economy, so without influence you have no chance. So why not loot? After all, the CF (Coalition Forces) won’t shoot you. You have to really work at it to get shot by the British. If we catch you we now hand you over to the Iraqi (IZ) judicial system. Except there isn’t one yet, not really, and all the Judges are corrupt or threatened. If you’re caught you spend about two nights in jail and get released. And while you are in jail we feed you, shelter you and give you water. This is like trying to deter crime in London by banging shoplifter up for two nights in the Ritz. So the locals think we aren’t serious about crime. Result is we are losing support.
The looting is incredible – they have done 99% of the damage to this city. The only reason the electricity isn’t fully back on is because they have been ripping up the electricity cables, burning off the insulation, melting down the copper and selling it on the black market. They light fires at either end of the cable to short it out first. Occasionally they get it wrong and get electrocuted, but if you live like they do it’s a perfectly rational risk to take.
The result is that people are turning elsewhere for security, away from us. Everything hangs on security, all infrastructure, all economic activity, everything. We don’t provide it, we just physically haven’t got enough troops. (We could do it if we shot people whenever they upset us. Everyone would stop upsetting us then, and we could build all the other security forces, i.e. police and judiciary, keep them safe from intimidation and build authority. This is a statement of fact, not a policy suggestion.)
The IZ police are corrupt, frightened, incompetent or all three, so people turn elsewhere. The tribal Sheikhs never used to have very much power in Basra because, unlike the countryside, the population was so mixed up. But now only the Sheiks are willing to kill your enemies or intimidate the police etc, so people go to them for help. This is a self-generating snowball effect, so we are creating a sort of tribal mafia, although not necessarily dishonest (though many are).
In my next letter I will give you a potted description of the breakdown of Basra society. And I do mean breakdown.
Apologies for the sparse style but I have my ‘yellow brain’ on all the time. That’s like a ‘green brain’ only cooked by the heat…
Editor’s note: An account of his recent visit to Basra by the now famous Salam Pax.