By Gethin Chamberlain in Basra for The Scotsman, 5 February 2005
MY NAME? My name is Hanif Masoor, he says. He is smartly dressed, his dark blue jacket bearing the word Security picked out in yellow thread in English and Arabic. It is pitch black in the countryside on the southern edge of Basra, the full moon long gone. From the marshes all around comes the sound of bullfrogs croaking. It fills the air.
I am a Sunni. Sunni, yes? Sunni and Shia. How did I vote? I voted 169. One hundred and sixtynine, the number on the ballot paper that denoted Grand Ayatollah al Sistani’s coalition. But Sistani is a Shia? Yes, yes, Hanif Masoor says, nodding hard, he is a Shia, but Sunni and Shia, they are not so different. We are all Muslims, he says. I voted for Sistani. I like Iraq. We need to be together. We should not make trouble against each other.
He was standing around with the other men guarding the point where the massive oil pipelines emerge from the ground south of the city before plunging back beneath the sand and down towards the tankers waiting to load off the Al Faw peninsula. The junction is protected by heavy concrete blast walls; a small concrete blockhouse is their home.
They used to work for a private firm protecting the pipelines, not that anyone would have dared attack them under Saddam Hussein. Now they work for the oil ministry, and their pay has been doubled. They are happy, they say. No-one has attacked them. It is very quiet, very nice.
The curfew imposed to keep people off the streets over the election period has ended. There are cars on the roads, people are strolling along the dusty streets. Shops are open again, a few customers stopping by to pick up the essentials of life: cola, cigarettes, some of the oranges and lemons and tomatoes piled up in baskets on tables next to the road. They stand around in little groups, chatting, trading stories.
The name of this place is Hamden. Sunnis and Shias live here. Sometimes, there is a little trouble, but nothing too serious. A patrol from the Royal Highland Fusiliers is passing through, stopping to talk to the police manning the checkpoints that are busy again now that traffic is moving.
The patrol carries on through the marshes south of the city, a desolate wilderness where shallow pools of oily water merge into the mud flats. There is not a soul in sight.
In the lead vehicle is Major Charlie Herbert. His voice comes over the soldiers’ personal radios from time to time: stop here, dismount, sentries out east and west, mount up. The soldiers standing up in the back of the Land Rovers, buffeted by the wind and chilled by the night air, listen and react to every order. Major Herbert is quite young, confident. He has an interpreter with him to repeat his questions in Arabic, and relay the answers. The interpreter’s English is passable, though there are moments of confusion.
A short distance from where Hanif Masoor and his men are standing, there is a police checkpoint. The soldiers stop. Herbert asks a policeman who is in charge. They find the chief in the front of his new police car, a fat man in jeans. His men wear an assortment of clothing, though most have on their blue police shirts showing their police insignia. They are proud of these; they are the men in charge, they like their position in society.
Over the flats a few hundred yards away to the north, there is the slow chug of an AK47. Tracer bullets rise into the sky, red dots curving gently into the black, 20, maybe 25. The soldiers watch and turn away. Celebratory fire, they say, nothing more. This is how Iraq is. People fire guns because they are happy, not just because they are angry.
The policemen see it, too, and they are jealous. I have only 600 bullets, the police chief says. I need more bullets. I really hope you don’t find yourself in a situation where you need to fire 600 bullets, Herbert tells him.
There is laughter. But the police chief presses on. I need more weapons, he says. I have 37 men and only 22 weapons. I need AKs and maybe something heavier. We were attacked last night, he says. Men shot at us, we shot back and they ran away. Maybe we could have RPG 7s [rocket propelled grenades]?, he asks. Everyone looks at him, and he laughs. But it is not clear whether he is really joking. It is not easy being a policeman on the checkpoints.
Maybe in a couple of months’ time it will be so peaceful that they don’t need weapons, Herbert tells him. And everyone laughs hard.
The patrol mounts up. There is some traffic, not heavy. Word comes over the radio that there has been a shooting nearby. A brown car, four older men inside. Then another message; it was a white car. There is a description. A few minutes later, a car approaches from ahead. Herbert’s driver flashes his headlights; the car slows to a halt. Herbert gets out, the rifles of the soldiers providing top cover on his Land Rover, which is pointing at the car. It is white, the correct model, but there is only one man inside.
He says he is a policeman, but he has left his identity card at home. His wife is ill, she is in the hospital, he says, and he needs to go home. There is a convoluted conversation before the interpreter manages to convey the message from Herbert that he must open the boot. Of course, the policeman says, and runs round to the back. There is only an empty petrol can inside. Herbert thanks him, wishes his wife well, and the patrol mounts up again.
On the outskirts of Basra, life has gone back to normal. The soldiers stop at a tiny shop for the interpreter to buy cigarettes; there are perhaps ten men clustered inside, talking. They come out, smiling, shaking hands with the soldiers. The shopkeeper wants them to join him for dinner; I only live over there, he says, pointing to his house across the street, all of you, come and dine with me. Herbert apologises. It is not possible, he says, there are too many of us, we must go. Some other time, the man tells him, you are all welcome. Another checkpoint. There are more shops open, but as the patrol arrives the electricity dies. It is a problem, the policemen there say, someone is switching the power off at night. They have to use torches, one says, but they are made in China and… He shrugs. It is not good.
Someone shot at them on election night, one policeman says. Who knows who it was? Wahabi, he thinks, extreme Sunnis. The patrol moves off.
A mile or so down the street, the lights are back on. Every now and then, there is another small shop, another little cluster of people. There are a few people strolling along the road. Life goes on.
If Hanif Masoor can vote for Grand Ayatollah al Sistani, Iraq can work. Good news is no news, but for now, post-election Iraq is working. Whether that can survive the election results, when many of those who were gripped by the excitement of voting discover that their candidates have not made it into the new administration, remains to be seen.
The soldiers are cautious. They have seen this before, the elation in Basra after the fall of Saddam, the hope, the belief that everything will change, the water and electricity back on, jobs and homes for all.
Wait for the results, the soldiers say. Then we will know if it has worked.