Ancient Iraqi City Awaits Possible War
Feb. 14, 2003
BASRA, Iraq (AP) _ Only 30 minutes' drive from the Kuwaiti border where tens of thousands of U.S. troops are massed lies the ancient port of Basra, the city hardest-hit by the bombs, shells and missiles of Iraq's last two wars.
The people of Basra, who have spent two decades rebuilding and remembering their dead, face another storm if the United States decides to disarm President Saddam Hussein by military force.
But they show few signs of worry now, enjoying the four-day Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha in the crowded city center, or strolling on the seafront promenade.
Basra was once a thriving commercial port city and a popular destination for Kuwaitis seeking alcohol and a bit of nightlife away from their own conservative society where alcohol is banned. But much of the city was destroyed by Iranian artillery during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, and then rebuilt before Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
During the 1991 Gulf War, Basra was for weeks the target of incessant allied bombing. Soon after hostilities ceased, a revolt by the city's Shiite Muslims and subsequent reprisals by Saddam Hussein's army brought more destruction and bloodshed.
Memories of war are fresh to many.
``We have seen homes and their occupants disappearing without a trace after air raids in 1991,'' said Basel al-Salem, a retired school teacher who runs an electrical shop in the city center. ``We've become accustomed to war after 20 years of fighting.''
``I remember one day during the war with Iran when 11 artillery shells landed on this street alone,'' said al-Salem, a father of two, pointing to the side street outside his shop.
During the Eid festival, which began Tuesday, the people of Basra have filled the city's main theater to see a stage comedy production from Baghdad, taken pleasure-boat rides in the Shatt-al-Arab waterway, and snacked on sweets and other traditional foods served from small pushcarts.
Festive lights, some in the shape of a heart, decorate some streets for the occasion, one of the biggest in the Muslim year. Processions of honking cars escorting wedding parties suggested that some have decided not to let the threat of war stand in the way of marriage.
Not even the roar of a warplane flying far above Wednesday afternoon, or the unnerving wail of an air raid siren at night disrupted the appearance of normal city life.
But these everyday pleasures are enjoyed against a backdrop of painful memory and visible reminders of the human cost of war.
Seafront revelers this week celebrated in the shadow of 99 larger-than-life bronze statues of men who fell in battle defending Basra against wave after wave of Iranian attacks in the 1980s.
The statues of men in combat fatigues and pilot overalls stand several yards apart on white pedestals along a half-mile stretch. They face the Shatt-al-Arab, pointing their index fingers across the waterway toward Iran, Iraq's bitter enemy in that ruinous war.
A 100th statue, larger and on a higher pedestal, is of Adnan Kheirallah, a former defense minister and war hero who died in a helicopter crash in 1989.
On either bank of the Shatt-al-Arab, the picturesque point where the rivers Tigris and Euphrates meet before they flow together into the Persian Gulf, the rusting hulks of boats, some half-submerged, others turned on their sides, attest to the devastation of past wars.
Of the thousands of palm trees dotting the landscape, dozens are headless or have blackened trunks _ the result of bombing. Travelers from Baghdad, 340 miles to the north, encounter a half-dozen roadblocks manned by armed security forces. In the distance are scores of sandbagged positions equipped with heavy machine-guns and anti-aircraft batteries.
Basra has been accustomed to the sound of warplanes overhead and air-raid sirens since the Iraq-Iran war. U.S. and British warplanes entering Iraqi airspace to enforce a ``no-fly'' zone over southern Iraq trigger the air raid siren.
The jets frequently attack Iraqi anti-aircraft defenses when they show hostile intentions, but Baghdad routinely refers to such raids as attacks on civilian targets and occasionally reports civilian deaths.
One such casualty was Mohammed Shereef Rida, a 23-year-old mechanic who was killed Dec. 1 by shrapnel at Basra's al-Hakimiyah district.
``I saw him for the last time just 10 minutes before he was killed,'' said his mother, 49-year-old Nahla Mohammed, wiping her tears as she recounted the day she lost her son.
``He had been married for just over two months when he died,'' she said, squatting in her black chador on the floor of the family's sparsely furnished house. ``How can I not hate America?''