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June 09, 2005

Even Count Potemkin No Longer Pretends His Creations Are Villages

National Review says things are not going well in Iraq. Why oh why do they hate America so much?

Steven Vincent on Iraq on National Review Online: Steven Vincent: Basra, Iraq — It’s been a little over a year since I was last in Basra, and at first glance little has changed. The buildings are just as dilapidated, livestock still periodically cross the rubble-strewn streets, and the once beautiful canals remain clotted with trash.... Beneath the surface, though.... I can no longer wander the streets, take a cab, or dine in restaurants for fear of being spotted as a foreigner: Kidnapping, by criminal gangs or terrorists, remains a lucrative business. Instead, for safety’s sake, I’m tied to my hotel, dependent on expensive drivers, unable to go anywhere without Iraqi escort. “You really shouldn’t be here at all,” a British-embassy official warned me....

Gone are the glamorous posters of those Shia icons.... The reason for this apparent diminution of religious fervor is the mainstreaming of Shia political organizations. “After the elections, the Islamic parties seized control of Basra,” Layla explains. “Now they want to appear more respectable.” Indeed, all but six of the 41 seats on the province’s Governing Council are filled by a cluster of Islamic groups, such as Dawa Islamiyya, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and the up-and-coming Fadillah party — affiliated with Moqtada al al-Sadr — which scored a coup when one of its members became the provincial governor.

Another change is the number of abiyas you see around town. As the religious parties flex their muscles, their various sheikhs and imams exert a steady, if unlegislated, pressure on women to cover themselves in hejab.... “This has become an Iranian city,” contends Salaam Wendy, a Basra native who recently returned to his hometown.... The shadow of religious fundamentalism falls across other areas, too. Take, for instance, Basra Province’s “elected” council, the first such body in the long history of the region. I put “elected” in quotes in deference to the cynicism of numerous Iraqis, who claim that the religious parties fixed the balloting.... “Before the elections, the Governing Council was appointed by educated elites who chose capable people,” former Basra governor Hassan Alrashidi griped to me at the meeting. “The elections have brought in people whose main qualifications are their loyalty to the religious parties.” ...

This Basran equanimity even extends to that huge bone of Iraqi contention: foreign troops. True, you can find pro-Sadr graffiti that reads, “WAIT...WAIT...BRITISH JEWISH ARMY AL MAHDI WILL DESTROY,” and numerous residents complain of summary arrests, imprisonment, and physical abuses of civilians by U.K. forces. Generally, though, the Brits — who patrol the city in lightly armored vehicles — are tolerated, and in some quarters, liked.... As for America, the general feeling is gratitude for the removal of Saddam, tempered by disappointment in the slow progress of Iraq’s reconstruction. “America rid of us of one tyrant, only to give us hundreds more in the form of terrorists”.... Still, I’ve encountered some odd pockets of pro-American sentiment....

I spent an afternoon in a mosque in Old Basra, listening to a Sunni sheikh denounce America. The insurgents, he informed me, are patriots.... The U.S. has long hungered to dominate Iraq and steal its oil.... Do the Iraqi people not share some responsibility for these catastrophes? “No,” replied the sheikh. “They are America’s fault. Before America meddled in our affairs, Iraqis were warm, peace loving people.”

Few people here go that far in ascribing blame to the U.S. or its allies. Still, there is a feeing of helplessness, bordering for some on a sense of futility... water is still bad, electricity spotty, gas lines intolerable. “How can this be? We should be rich!” Saad, a former translator for the British army exclaimed to me. “Where is the money going, why is nothing happening?"... Basrans can almost see the arrival a better and more prosperous tomorrow, but for now, that bright future is frustratingly, inexplicably, just beyond their reach.

So we've reached the stage where even Count Potemkin will no longer pretend that his creations were villages.

Posted by DeLong at June 9, 2005 09:43 PM