BASRA, Iraq — The government of Iraq is spending $6 billion to rebuild this city at almost head-spinning speed, turning a town left virtually demolished by the war with Iran into "Iraq's most beautiful and elegant city."
Workers have built bridges, replaced buildings, fixed roads, added new water and electricity systems and have even begun replacing palm trees decapitated by artillery fire.
Officials plan to erect nearly 100 statues of war heroes, with their fingers pointing forbiddingly in the direction of neighboring Iran.
'Brave Men' Praised
"What we are doing cannot be compared with the sacrifices of thousands of brave men who lost their lives in defending Basra," said engineer Nawaf Abdullah as he supervised a street repaving in downtown Basra.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in February imposed a three-month deadline for completing reconstruction of this strategic city overlooking the Shatt al Arab waterway, Iraq's main outlet to the Persian Gulf.
The deadline was to have expired May 12, but Gov. Anwar Sayeed Hadithi said the renovation has been extended to June 12 to cover more of the city and encompass new projects.
At least 90% of the buildings in Basra were destroyed or damaged in fierce Iranian artillery barrages during the eight-year war. Iranian troops got within six miles of the city last year before being driven back, and Iraqis consider the city a symbol of their defense.
After the August cease-fire, the Iraqi government announced it would rebuild Basra. So far, it claims to have committed $6 billion to the project.
40 New Bridges
Hadithi said six small rivers in Basra have been cleared of debris, their banks resurfaced and 40 bridges constructed.
A new electricity grid and new pipe network for drinking water have been installed. Iraqi authorities have said they will build a new drinking-water processing plant in Basra that will tap water from the Euphrates River far north of the city.
Residents consider the current water from the Shatt al Arab too brackish.
Hadithi said the government offered unlimited money to finance the development so that Basra can be "Iraq's most beautiful and elegant city."
But the city still bears scars from the shelling, including shrapnel holes in buildings.
Hadithi said the city, Iraq's second largest after Baghdad, is back to its prewar population of 1.5 million. About half the population is believed to have fled during the shelling.
The government has encouraged people to return by offering plots of land, cash gifts and loans or grants of up to $32,000 to build new homes.
The government also is offering similar incentives to get people with no Basra roots to move into the city.
Among the projects is the construction of 96 statues of senior Iraqi officers killed while defending the city. The statues will be erected on the corniche of the Shatt al Arab with their arms pointing east, toward Iran, "warning against the dangers which have always come from Iran," the governor said.
The government did not use independent contractors for the reconstruction drive. Instead, it relied on its own personnel and machinery.
'City of Cities'
At least 100,000 workers and 40,000 machines from different parts of the country were dispatched to take part in the project, called "the national drive for the reconstruction of the city of cities."
Basra has as much strategic as symbolic importance to Iraq. Iran insists that a 1975 treaty placing the countries' southern border in the middle of the Shatt al Arab is still valid.
Iraq says that the treaty is invalid and that the border is on Iran's eastern bank.