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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Dispatches from Basra V

A new letter from Basra, this time adding a bit of colour (or new shades of grey) to the black and white picture of Iraqi society.

I promised you a description of Basra society. The most important division is not religious or tribal but between the top 20% and the bottom 80%. The top 20% is the educated class that run the country. It was a totally technocratic country, with the highest percentage of PhDs per capita in the world, and it shows. The educated 20% are scared stiff of Islamic fundamentalism, Iranians and extremists.

They want to see a modern, comparatively secular state, so they tend to be pro-CF [ed. Coalition Forces] as a bulwark against all of the above, and because they have the most to lose from a breakdown in law and order. They are also terrified of mob rule. They are appalled by the current crime, which is not simply old Basra without Saddam, but Basra with the worst scum from across Iraq deliberately released into it just before we arrived. They want security above all from CF and are frightened of not getting it. Talk of the Badr corps, Iranian trained Iraqis, is everywhere.

The top 20% are usually tainted ex-regime to some degree although they also include those most vehemently opposed to the old regime, as they tended to have suffer more personally – they were important enough for the regime to bother to deal with. Most have also quickly switched to CF as the resident power and will switch again just as easily. There are plenty of genuine patriots and some humanitarian idealists, but most look to see how the new regime works and how they can manipulate it. They now want to get on and get ahead with their fairly typical middle-class aspirations, but most are held back to some degree by Ba’ath Party connections. And some are involved in the crime in the sense of general managerial corruption.

Authority – many people, especially at the top defined themselves by their positions. This has all gone, creating a social vacuum and loss of identity. The top 20% provide the main support of the secular political parties, i.e. INC, CINU, etc. Influences on the top 20% in rough order of importance are the CF, the political parties, western aspirations, ex-regime connections, tribes, and religion.

Amongst the poorer 80% only 40% of the total population count, as only the men count politically. Women have a lot more sway within the homes than western stereotyping realises but not outside of it. (Women in the top 20% have professional status just as in the West.) Their sources of information are primarily their local Imams. They all go to the Mosque on Friday and listen to the sermon but they do not necessarily agree with what they are told (if they did, there would not be so much crime…) In addition, if they do not like the message they simply swap mosques.

The small educated part of the bottom 80% tend to be religious scholars, anyone else who is educated gets immense respect, i.e. any doctors, lawyers. Otherwise, people listen to radio in crowds in markets and barber shops. They are 80% illiterate, but those who can read pass on whatever they read in pamphlets, leaflets or papers, inevitably putting their own spin on it and increasing the power of rumour. There is a popular local saying Egyptians write, Lebanese print, Iraqis read

Tribal connections are becoming more important in urban Basra than in the past, as they provide the only available means of security – the police are frightened of being attacked, but a tribe is big enough and violent enough to protect you. The police are not willing to kill your enemies, the tribe is. To a lesser extent religious political groups try to fulfil the same function. This part of the population is very localised and rely upon local community links. Their other options are to join or work for a crime gang.

The bottom part of the population is used to being told, not so much what to do, as what will happen. They are desperate for direction and basic security and basic infrastructure, i.e. immediate water and electricity and fuel to cook. By way of comparison Saddam Hussein got the infrastructure back up and running in a month in 1991 after Basra was far worse damaged. He did it largely by threatening to shoot looters. The influences at this level are the Imams, who also act in effect as local social workers, tribes, and crime gangs.

That’s enough for now. Things have actually improved on the security front because of the ops [ed. operations] we have done, mostly VCPs [ed. vehicle checkpoints]

3 comments to Dispatches from Basra V

  • Edmund Burke

    Interesting that figure about the number of Phd’s. I was in Basra about 30 years ago, and was very impressed by the level of technical competency, in particular in contrast to Abadan just downstream in Iran.
    It is dreadful to think of what Iraq has missed out on over the last 30 years, and what inspiration it could have given to the Arab world, under different circumstances. Our old friend National Socialism does its filthy work yet again.

  • Dale Amon

    Your discussion of the people there and what they get out of it is exactly what I think should be emphasized a bit more to the North of you…

  • veryretired

    This Basra correspondent is a gem. The concise political/social analysis would have taken some self important member of the Academe’ at least two books to describe, and then no one could have understood it anyway. Much appreciated.