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Shifting sands in a city of dreams

Plainclothes security men wait in the lobby of the Mnawi Basha Hotel. Giant clocks advertise the time in New York and Dubai. A British man brags loudly on his cellphone that he has just closed a deal with the Iraqi government, then rushes out to a convoy of waiting cars, accompanied by a clutch of aides in business suits.

The five-star hotel percolates with the ambitions and worries of barracudas looking to make a killing in southern Iraq’s new boom market. Their words flip like a schizophrenic’s from visions of dollars to disaster and back again.

“This is the time to be here,” says an American with an oil services firm. “If you come next year, it’ll be too late.”

The oilman has started shopping for a villa and has hired a local security company to protect him. He leans back in one of the vanilla leather chairs in the lobby and joins a companion’s nervous chatter about the recent shelling of the Basra airport, home to the U.S. military and many oil company workers.

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They whisper that most of the foreign oil companies are moving slowly because the country’s uncertain future spooks them.

“There is no security, no order,” says the oilman’s friend, who also has a lot of money invested in Iraq.

Iraq has signed 11 contracts with foreign oil companies to raise daily production capacity from 2.6 million to 12.5 million barrels in seven years. But the massive endeavor unfolds against the backdrop of a government in paralysis, with deep-seated feuds among leading parties, a proliferation of clandestine armed groups and a powder keg of resentments just looking for a spark.

Basra is a window on both Iraq’s ambitions and the dysfunction that could sabotage the country. It’s a city with two faces: one with shopping malls and fancy supermarkets, the other with shacks and giant sewage ponds.

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Dhia Jaffar, director of South Oil Co., speaks with the calculated air of one who has outlasted his enemies.

During Saddam Hussein’s reign, Jaffar’s membership in the Islamic Dawa Party landed him in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, where many Dawa members disappeared, never to be seen again.

Jaffar survived five years there, and was allowed to return to work at South Oil, where he spent the next two decades “on the shelf,” as he puts it with a sly smile. He waited, assigned to peripheral jobs, and moved cautiously, not daring to draw attention.

After years on the margins, Jaffar has risen in the post-Hussein Iraq along with the Dawa Party, led by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. In March 2008, Maliki ordered troops to wrest control of the city from the warring gangs and political factions that had practically destroyed Basra.

The prime minister asserted control over South Oil, previously the domain of Basra’s then-governor, Mohammed Waeli of the rival Shiite fundamentalist Fadila party. Last summer, Jaffar was put in charge of the company and the largest oil fields in Iraq.

Jaffar and his party are betting that investment in the fields will help break the hold of Shiite armed groups and criminal gangs in a province with an unemployment rate of at least 25%. The contracts signed by oil firms require that they spend $5 million annually to train Iraqis in the energy industry.

“One of the most important things is that the young people have jobs,” Jaffar says. “At the end of the month, his pocket is full of money.... The security situation will be improved.”

With time, Jaffar says, Basra could be as dazzling as any of the Persian Gulf’s cityscapes. “If we have brilliant minds,” he says, “we will be better than Dubai.”

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From the tenements on the edge of town, the squatters can see the flames blinking in the oil fields.

Qadhim Abdullah’s home has posters of sports cars taped to the wall and colorful paintings of the Shiite saint Hussein holding a wounded child.

Abdullah’s 16-month-old daughter lies with a fever in the middle of the floor, tangled in dirty orange linen and covered with flies. Some days he lines up at

6 a.m., waiting to jump in the back of a truck for a day’s construction work. He thinks about the companies coming in, and hopes for a construction boom.

“If we are working, it will get better,” Abdullah says.

His friend Qassem goes around with his donkey cart early in the morning to look for wire and scrap metal to sell. He doesn’t have time to think about the government or the oil companies. His concerns are more pressing.

As a pair of young boys in matching T-shirts eat melting chocolate a few yards from open sewage pools, Qassem and his relatives joke about selling their children’s kidneys on the black market. Qassem obsesses over his donkey’s health and says only half in jest, “I hope my child gets sick instead of my donkey, because my donkey is our life.”

It is evening, and Waeli is in his rented sandstone villa, dressed in jeans and a green short-sleeved sports shirt. The next day, the former governor will fly to Germany to sign a cooperation agreement with businessmen to facilitate investments in Basra. A giant picture of Waeli and the outgoing German ambassador is displayed on a mantel.

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At one time, Waeli was the most controversial politician in Basra. The British military, which controlled the region, often viewed him and his relatives as leaders of southern Iraq’s oil-smuggling rackets and gangland-style violence. Waeli has denied the accusations and blames his enemies for the suspicion. On this night, he points the finger at neighboring Iran and rival political parties, saying they want to weaken Basra and prevent its rise.

The perception that the provincial council has been ineffectual under Maliki’s party has fanned nostalgia for Waeli, who left office in the spring of 2009. People appear to have forgotten rumors of him being linked to the factional violence. Instead, they remember him for planting trees along highways and approving a block of new public housing.

He describes himself now as a businessman and facilitator. He has a fleet of 65 trucks to help ship foreign companies’ equipment. He runs a 70-to-80-man security firm to help guard foreigners.

He leans back on a sofa with a glass of juice. On a flat-screen TV, a Kuwaiti sitcom lampoons former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

“One and a half years I have been working [in business],” Waeli says. “Because I know how to deal with these things and I know what Iraq needs.”

Abu Mariam, the owner of Basra Land amusement park, is dreaming big.

He brags about importing new rides from Germany and Turkey. He has opened a restaurant serving hamburgers, fajitas and pizzas.

But Mariam has his share of troubles. He wanders the park complaining: about the tribal sheiks who he says want to extort money from him; about the government’s failure to provide free electricity; about the threats from armed religious groups. The only person he thanks is the Iraqi army general in charge of Basra, who has stationed soldiers outside the gates of Basra Land.

Blue, red and yellow lights blink from a roller coaster and rides with names like Adrenaline Maximum and the Octopus.

Two young men are taking it all in. A woman broke a date with one of them, so they sit and watch the lights from the rides and little girls in frilly green dresses running from their parents.

One of the men, a civil servant named Wassem, says the park is too expensive for many families.

“If the situation stays like this, people won’t cooperate or respect the government,” he says. “When there is no electricity, no water and no public services, problems will happen.”

His friend Sabah nods. “We hope the foreigners work here. We no longer trust our own people, so let the foreigners work.”

Suddenly, the power is interrupted, and the park goes pitch-black. Children scream from the Octopus ride with its spinning tentacles. The ride slows and the tentacles descend. The din of voices is stilled, and everyone waits in the dark.

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ned.parker@latimes.com

Salman is a Times staff writer.


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