Big news in Basra

Under Saddam Hussein, there were no regional newspapers in Iraq. But now that opinions are not such dangerous things, local titles are returning. Robert Fisk meets the Murdoch of southern Iraq
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The Independent Online

Sheikh Fadeil Kamel al-Deraji is the owner of An-Nahda newspaper, and he is the Rupert Murdoch of Basra. He has 40 reporters on his payroll, and claims that his paper is "the voice of the people of southern Iraq".

Having already gobbled up another local newspaper, he is about to become the owner of Basra Sport - which, this being Iraq, also includes politics - and is looking for more. He also carries, in the small left pocket of his white abaya, an equally small grey pistol. In "New Iraq", he needs one.

The heat squalls up the corridor from the Basra marketplace and into the snug little editor's office on the first floor of a ramshackle concrete block, where an air- conditioner roars its anger in the corner and a man in a grey shirt and spectacles - he is never introduced to me and later declines to give his name - sits, disconcertingly, before a giant photograph of New York at dusk that takes up the entire wall, the twin towers of the World Trade Centre twinkling cheerfully over his left shoulder.

Mr Deraji sits more humbly on a sofa, along with his chief editor, Hashem al-Hassan, in front of a copy of the paper's seventh edition, with its front-page headline: "Coalition Forces Celebrate the Security and Stability of Southern Iraq". The second story is headed: "Many Big Security Operations in Umm Qasr Port". Isn't there a danger, I ask, that he may be seen as a bit, well, collaborationist, too close to the local British troops in Basra, and to Paul Bremer, the American occupation boss in Baghdad? Mr Deraji will have none of it.

"Who brought the Americans in here?" he asks. "We brought them in - in order to bring an end to the oppressor. And we also blame the opposition parties in exile - what did they do for their people? Why didn't they also join the people in the mass graves? Yes, foreign rule is very painful. Bremer listened too much to the opposition, such as Ahmed Chalabi. He should have listened to the ordinary people." One of his Baghdad reporters, Mr Deraji confides to me later, actually works in Mr Bremer's office.

But he also has good reason to hate Saddam Hussein. In one of those many acts of valour that are only now being revealed in post-Baathist Iraq, Mr Deraji's brother Taha, an officer in the Iraqi army, avoided service in Kuwait after Saddam's 1990 invasion, and then, when the Shia Muslim uprising began the following year, ordered his soldiers to open the secret prisons of Basra and free their tortured inmates. Taha was later arrested at the family home in As-Zubayr and never seen again. There is a silence in the room, save for the furious air-conditioner, as we contemplate what this means: that Taha is in one of the many mass graves still unopened in southern Iraq.

"We are independent, and we support no political party - we give a page every week to the views of all the parties," Mr Deraji says. It's a policy, I suspect, that will win him no friends. "Under the Saddam regime, we all suffered; all our reporters suffered in their previous lives. They never had an opportunity to tell the truth. So, once Saddam and his regime were gone, we had the freedom to make our opinion heard. The coalition forces in Basra were taking care of the situation, so we started to establish our newspaper."

Basra has an intriguing press history. Its first newspaper, Al-Basra, was suppressed by the Ottomans in 1913, and under Saddam Hussein's centralised regime - which jailed Mr Hassan, the editor, for making a joke about Uday and Qusay Hussein - there were no regional newspapers at all in Iraq. Mr Deraji, who prints his paper, with its two colour pages, in Kuwait - an oddly expensive location to run off up to 10,000 copies a week - is not only a tribal leader but, true to the Murdoch principle of diversifying, is also a merchant, businessman and chicken farmer. He loudly denies that he intends to use his paper as a platform for a political career - which he obviously does - and insists: "If the coalition forces do something against the Iraqi people, the Iraqi people have a good history for dealing with this situation. I promise you that if they do something bad to the Iraqi people, in a few hours we will fight them, even with our children.

"But if they go on like they are now, suffering from our hot weather but helping our people with water and electrical supply and basic services, they look like friends."

Mr Deraji blames the usual Baathist "remnants" for the anonymous death threats that he and his editor receives. "There were seven letters - three typed, four handwritten - threatening us with death, or an attack on this office, or blowing up our cars. We had a meeting of our staff, and I said: 'The cowards among you may leave us.' In fact, we then acquired extra staff. As for me, I have a gun in my pocket."

And out comes the little grey Czech pistol. He holds it up and puts a pen beside it. "Which is more powerful, Mr Robert?"

I wonder if the anonymous man at the big desk in front of the giant picture of New York is more powerful. I ask him to introduce himself. "I do not want to give you my name," he says. It turns out that he works in the local courts - whose officials have been approved and appointed by the British - and is also a former Iraqi army colonel, retired in 1986, who is loyal to the Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani. Then, Mr Deraji's editor, Mr Hassan, says that he, too, is a Kurd.

So why, I ask, is the mysterious ex-colonel sitting in the editor's chair? "It is our Arab tradition", beams Mr Deraji, "to give our guests the best chair in the room." I am still reflecting upon this when Mr Deraji leans towards me. "Please give our best wishes to the British people," he murmurs. "And please give our best wishes to your soldiers, and especially to their officers and their commander."

And, somehow, I think that the occupation authorities are not going to have too many problems with An-Nahda.