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Basra Could Boil Over Again

Electricity supplies improve and protesters stay home. But some warn that riots will reignite -- and spread -- if conditions worsen.

August 12, 2003|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

BASRA, Iraq — Sleeping on the roof here in Iraq's second-largest city, hoping for a breeze to stir the blanket of suffocating hot air, Kamila Jasen often has to lay quilts on her children in case bullets from random gunfire into the air fall and burn their skin.

The house's 15-year-old air cooler was not working at all Sunday. Nor were the ceiling fans. The electricity was off for all but an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening. So Jasen, 28, lay on the roof, trying to rest in the heat, listening to the anger in the streets of the lower-middle-class Jumhooriya neighborhood.

There was a lot more shooting than usual. "It was terrible yesterday," her sister-in-law, Raba Alwan, said Monday. "We were on the roof and couldn't sleep at all."

The eastern wind blasts into Basra like hot air in a convection oven, with temperatures well above 120 degrees over the last four days. At night, the air barely seems to cool down.

On Sunday, residents protested in Basra for a second day, with small crowds rioting in some areas over gasoline shortages and power blackouts caused by infrastructure problems, sabotage and smuggling. By Monday, electricity supplies had improved, and gasoline stations had worked all night to deliver fuel. A convoy of dozens of tankers headed south toward the city in the afternoon carrying more. And the protesters stayed home.

Healing the wounds suffered by the U.S.-led occupation administration, however, will probably take much longer.

Basra, whose majority Shiite Muslim population suffered repression under Saddam Hussein, has been one of Iraq's quietest cities since the war. But some here see the last four days as a turning point, the moment when the British forces that rule this region of the country lost the residents' confidence and goodwill. Some people warn that unless the improvements are permanent, Basra may turn against the coalition forces.

"It was just the beginning of the anger. It could get a lot worse," said Karim Mnati, 43, a clerk in the city's electricity department, also from the Jumhooriya neighborhood. "The people of Basra can tolerate this, but not for long. Maybe this is the start.... And once it emanates from Basra, it will never stop."

By Monday, the electricity was working: three hours on, three hours off, a regimen most people here find tolerable. Under the former government, there were electricity shortages, with power also provided in three-hour cycles.

Mnati said the main reason for the current blackouts was frequent breakdowns of the city's very old generating equipment. In addition, coalition officials said, saboteurs have cut two 400-kilovolt cables that tie the city into the nation's electrical grid.

As for gasoline, authorities said electrical problems at refineries had slowed production and smugglers were taking large quantities of fuel into neighboring Kuwait.

In the long hours without power, Basra's heat is inescapable, exhausting. It shreds nerves and frays tempers.

"We all get upset when it's so hot. I shout at my daughters even when they've done nothing wrong. I lose my temper," Mnati said. "Sometimes they get frustrated and upset too, but they're afraid of me, so they don't shout back."

Usually, the children fill a vat of water and splash it over themselves to try to cool off. But in the last four days, even water was a problem.

There was not enough electricity to run the pumps that residents use to bring water from pipes in the street to tanks on the roofs. Twenty members of Jasen's family live in a four-room house, and they often have to take water from a broken pipe at the end of the street -- though sometimes it smells or is black.

Some of the streets in the area are ankle-deep in sewage, and chickens peck among piles of trash lying in the road.

For some families, the electricity shortages have meant the inconvenience of inoperable refrigerators and air conditioners and water coolers, and the boredom of life without television. But Jasen's family has few electrical appliances. There is no fridge or washing machine, just one iron, a TV, the fans and the aged air cooler. On Sunday, she spent three hours fanning her four children with woven palm fronds, trying to cool them down.

The electricity and power shortages wreak havoc with family finances. Mnati pays a dollar a day for drinking water, because he can't pump enough. Ice, normally about 30 cents a block, now costs 15 times that, far beyond the reach of the average family.

Mnati used to pay about 30 cents for his daily taxi ride. Now it costs him $1.25 because the gasoline shortage has driven prices up. He earns $120 a month as a clerk, a little more than what he earned during the Hussein regime.

"All of us are very angry at the coalition," Mnati said. "When the coalition came, we were happy and welcomed them, but they did nothing. On the contrary, they made more of a crisis. They are superpowers, they can do anything they want.

"They came here to take some benefit from our country," he said. "But the Iraqi people should benefit a little too."

The British forces in Basra used to venture out on patrol wearing only light berets. Now the helmets and flak jackets are back on. Still, they are making a visible effort to connect with people, trying to defuse the anger of recent days.

One soldier on the back of a military vehicle Monday waved cheerily at every car and cyclist. Almost all of them waved back.

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