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Shifting sands in a city of dreams

Iraq's oil-rich Basra could be poised for greatness -- except for the instability and feuding factions that make it a tinderbox.

August 06, 2010|Ned Parker and Raheem Salman

It is evening, and Waeli is in his rented sandstone villa, dressed in jeans and a green short-sleeved sports shirt. The next day, the former governor will fly to Germany to sign a cooperation agreement with businessmen to facilitate investments in Basra. A giant picture of Waeli and the outgoing German ambassador is displayed on a mantel.

At one time, Waeli was the most controversial politician in Basra. The British military, which controlled the region, often viewed him and his relatives as leaders of southern Iraq's oil-smuggling rackets and gangland-style violence. Waeli has denied the accusations and blames his enemies for the suspicion. On this night, he points the finger at neighboring Iran and rival political parties, saying they want to weaken Basra and prevent its rise.

The perception that the provincial council has been ineffectual under Maliki's party has fanned nostalgia for Waeli, who left office in the spring of 2009. People appear to have forgotten rumors of him being linked to the factional violence. Instead, they remember him for planting trees along highways and approving a block of new public housing.

He describes himself now as a businessman and facilitator. He has a fleet of 65 trucks to help ship foreign companies' equipment. He runs a 70-to-80-man security firm to help guard foreigners.

He leans back on a sofa with a glass of juice. On a flat-screen TV, a Kuwaiti sitcom lampoons former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"One and a half years I have been working [in business]," Waeli says. "Because I know how to deal with these things and I know what Iraq needs."

Abu Mariam, the owner of Basra Land amusement park, is dreaming big.

He brags about importing new rides from Germany and Turkey. He has opened a restaurant serving hamburgers, fajitas and pizzas.

But Mariam has his share of troubles. He wanders the park complaining: about the tribal sheiks who he says want to extort money from him; about the government's failure to provide free electricity; about the threats from armed religious groups. The only person he thanks is the Iraqi army general in charge of Basra, who has stationed soldiers outside the gates of Basra Land.

Blue, red and yellow lights blink from a roller coaster and rides with names like Adrenaline Maximum and the Octopus.

Two young men are taking it all in. A woman broke a date with one of them, so they sit and watch the lights from the rides and little girls in frilly green dresses running from their parents.

One of the men, a civil servant named Wassem, says the park is too expensive for many families.

"If the situation stays like this, people won't cooperate or respect the government," he says. "When there is no electricity, no water and no public services, problems will happen."

His friend Sabah nods. "We hope the foreigners work here. We no longer trust our own people, so let the foreigners work."

Suddenly, the power is interrupted, and the park goes pitch-black. Children scream from the Octopus ride with its spinning tentacles. The ride slows and the tentacles descend. The din of voices is stilled, and everyone waits in the dark.


Salman is a Times staff writer.

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