Rotting hulks bear witness to the ruin of Iraq

Robert Fisk visits the once-bustling port of Basra, crippled by sanctions
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The Independent Online
"FIVE Englishmen ran this port until 1958," Ali al-Imara proudly announces. "The first chairman was John Ward, from 1919 until 1942, and then we had William Bennett until 1947. They were very good men.

"In 1958, Mr Shaawi took over; he was a very good man too." There is no mention of the 1958 Iraqi revolution that ended British stewardship of Basra's old harbour.

Today, the gates to the wharf are still adorned with well-polished Tudor roses in heavy brass, but the slates have cascaded off the roofs of the old colonial offices. The railway lines, laid down when Basra was an international rail terminal, are corroded with weeds. The great sluggish waterway of the Shatt al-Arab drifts past the hulks tied up on the quays. Here is the Yasmine, a trawler under whose black paint it is still possible to read the words "Lord Shackleton, Port Stanley, FI [Falkland Islands]"; and there the Wisteria, all 6,742-blackened tons of her.

Who set fire to her, I ask three Iraqi officials on the quay? "An Iranian missile hit it in 1981," one of them replies. But his friend mutters in Arabic: "Tell him it was the Americans." Then they all chorus: "It was the Americans!"

Basra lives on lies. If only the Iranians had not attacked Iraq and closed the river in 1980 (it was the Iraqis who invaded Iran). If only the United Nations had not slapped sanctions on Iraq after the Iran-Iraq war (forget the little matter of Kuwait in 1990). Even the ships have changed their names in embarrassment. The supply ship Atco Sara, according to a half- erased name, used to be the Pacific Prospector of Illinois and, before that, the Northern Builder.

Behind us, the marshalling yards are filled with long freight trains, massive grey wagons hooked up to leave on a journey that should have started in 1980, the trucks now entangled with weeds and bushes. Mr al-Imara strides along the docks. "If it wasn't for sanctions, we would have this port dredged and running," he says.

It is an odd affliction that now besets Iraq's bureaucracy. Tutored to boast of all that is best about Iraq, they now have to publicise all that is worst. It must be an awfully difficult transition. For who knows when the orders might come down from Baghdad to reverse the process yet again? Mr al-Imara says he is a poet as well as being "foreign relations adviser" to Basra port. And he quotes a work of his called "Confrontation":

"When you shoot with a bullet from anywhere,

The bullet will head straight for my chest;

Because the events through which we have passed

Have made my chest round."

And we look at Mr al-Imara's rather diminutive chest and laugh politely. Whose bullets, we wonder silently, is the poet referring to? Surely not those which scar the facade of Basra's central police station, still a gutted marble shell beside one of the city's fetid canals. Certainly not those which smashed into the burning governorate building during the same 1991 uprising by Basra's Shiite Muslim majority. And not the bullets which were fired into the city's police cars. On the grainy old television in our hotel room, President Saddam Hussein is seated before his Revolutionary Command Council, making a joke at which his uniformed courtiers guffaw.

The Corniche of Martyrs corrects any misapprehensions about the enemy. For along the west bank of the Shatt al-Arab, below the dank portals of the Basra Sheraton hotel, stand the dead heroes of President Saddam's "Quadassiyeh" war, the chosen two dozen Iraqi soldiers - out of perhaps half a million - whose death will not have been in vain. Each man, modelled from photographs, points across the muddy waterway towards the precise location on the war front, inside Iran, at which he died during a war which President Saddam named after Iraq's ancient victory over the Persians.

The soldiers, three times life-size, are identified by name, along with a colossus down the bank representing General Adnan Khairallah, one of the greatest of all Saddam's military leaders. He stands facing his cannon- fodder, right arm raised in honour of their courage; though we must spare a thought for the enormously popular general, who died "tragically", in a helicopter crash not long after the war ended.

Below these statues, the street urchins hawk nuts parcelled in old newspaper at eight pence a package.

They are as far as they can get from the food chain, at the furthest corner of Iraq, clamped between Iran's suspicions to the east and Kuwait's hatred to the south, dominated by rusting ships and the towering dead. What would Mr Ward and Mr Bennett make of all this?