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Shia Storm Home in Basra

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The southern province is a stronghold for Iraq's main Shia coalition, but not everyone is as pleased as its landslide victory suggests. By Safaa Mansoor in Basra (ICR No. 159, 20-Dec-05)


Tara Yousif slapped her face in anger when early results from the general election were announced on television.

Across the southern provinces of Iraq, preliminary results released by the Independent Electoral Commission in Iraq gave the Shia-led United Iraqi Alliance, UIA, an unassailable lead in the vote for the country’s first permanent National Assembly. The UIA took 77 per cent of the vote in Yousif’s home province of Basra, where the secular Iraqi National List led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi came a distant second with 11 per cent.

Many people were overjoyed, like Salim Abu al-Hel, a 55-year-old medic in Basra, who said that even if the UIA failed to win the 140 out of 275 parliamentary seats it got in the January ballot for an interim National Assembly, it would be able to still form a government.

"Everyone should know that the Shias are the majority in Iraq, and that they are the ones who are going to rule the country," he said.

Yousif, 22, is also Shia, but she was among those less delighted with the outcome.

"I will leave Iraq if these results are true," she said.

Yousif, who is unemployed and lives with her mother, has her own reasons for feeling resentful against the Shia parties that make up most of the UIA bloc. Her father was killed by gunmen in 2003, because he had formerly been a local leader in deposed president Saddam Hussein's dissolved Baath Party.

"I know who killed my father, but I can't do anything against them because those criminals are in power now," she said.

Other residents of Basra city, a port with a Shia majority, expressed unhappiness with the results for a variety of other reasons. Some were concerned at what they see as undue influence exerted from nearby Iran, while others said suggested the figures might have been massaged. Others still were angry that UIA dominance of local government had done little to improve basic public services.

In front of a mosque where the southern representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani leads Friday prayers, dozens of young people donning green head-sashes raised ink-stained fingers showing they had voted and shouted out slogans in support of Sistani, Iraq's top Shia cleric. Sistani never endorsed a particular coalition in this election, but his advice to voters to choose political groups with religious leanings provided indirect support to the UIA.

Watching the impromptu demonstration, market trader Ahmed Shahab, 55, was sceptical of this outpouring of pro-UIA feeling.

"I’d have joined them if they’d got together to lobby for an increase in the electricity supply, the elimination of unemployment and an end to assassinations," he said. "They used to carry pictures of Saddam and cheer for him. Now they're back, chanting again."

One of the demonstrators, Abdulwahab al-Dayini, a 30-year-old farmer, said the interim parliament elected last January had been hemmed in by the undue influence of the United States and other external actors, but he predicted that things would be better this time.

"Our standing parliament will get rid of the constraints, and the situation will improve," he said.

While some people such as Dayini were unhappy with the US role in Iraq, others seemed more worried at the prospect of continuing Iranian influence in the south. Banners written in Persian and posters depicting Iranian clerics are to be seen in many Basra neighbourhoods. Many Shia Iraqis spent time in Iran after fleeing Saddam's rule.

Some think the current UIA-led Iraqi government has been too lax with Iran.

"Most of the local party leaders and senior provincial [government] staff have lived in Iran," said Ahmed Arif, 43, an Arabic-language teacher. "They are now pursuing Iranian politics in the city, and looking after Iranian interests."

According to Yousif, "Anyone who wants to live in the Islamic Republic of Iran should live there, not in Basra.

“Basra is a city for everyone."

Safaa Mansoor is an IWPR trainee journalist in Baghdad.
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Last modified 2006-01-04 05:49 AM

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