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With militias gone, more freedom in Basra

Iraqis in Basra welcome  new freedoms three months after the Iraqi military wrested control of the country's second-largest city from militiamen.  But frustration is rising over a lack of basic services.
An Iraqi woman pushes through a crowded market in Basra, where residents are enjoying new freedoms after the army wrested control from militiamen.Kim Gamel / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Men and women can openly study for the first time in years at Basra University, free from the threat of Shiite gunmen enforcing extreme Islamic views.

To get to class, however, the students must navigate traffic jams and ubiquitous checkpoints that the Iraqi military calls the price of peace in this sweltering, oil-rich southern city where temperatures soar above 120 degrees.

It often doesn't get any cooler indoors. Basra is suffering widespread electricity shortages that residents blame on Iraqi authorities, who in turn point the finger at neighboring Iran. And then there's the lack of clean tap water.

From students to merchants, people here say they are happy and hopeful about their new freedoms three months after the Iraqi military wrested control of the country's second-largest city from Shiite militiamen. But frustration is rising over the failure of the Iraqi government to follow through on its promises to improve basic services, provide jobs and distribute enough food to citizens.

"The government gives us food rations, but it is not enough. We are all tired," Chitaya Mashhan Madloon said as she pushed through the crowd at a market, using her black robe to wipe sweat from her forehead.

Possibility of more violence
Many worry the neglect could ignite more violence.

"The services are getting worse, they're not getting better. This is creating ill will toward the government," said Mustafa Mahdi Hussein, the dean of Basra University's college of administration and economics.

Hussein said unemployment posed a security risk because idle young men are vulnerable to militia recruitment.

"We need to give them work to do. You can't just keep expanding the military operations. If you talk to anybody, they just want three things, electricity, water and safety," he added during a recent interview in his office.

Such complaints are common throughout Iraq but have particular resonance in Basra and other areas where security forces have gained control from armed groups. The fear is that without a speedy increase in public services and quality of life, the public will lose confidence in the government, opening the door for the extremists to return.

The government has allocated at least $100 million to rebuild the province. Most of the money has been earmarked for projects to improve services, communications, roads and health services, and some 17 percent to compensate citizens for damages during the latest military operations, said Tariq al-Moussawi of the Basra Reconstruction Committee.

Basra province holds most of the country's proven oil reserves and is the main export hub. But the city's garbage-strewn streets belie the riches underground nearby.

Predominantly Shiite, the city's residents were persecuted under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime. They later fell under the influence of Shiite militias who filled a power vacuum after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

In one of the worst examples of the lawlessness that followed the toppling of Saddam, Iraqi police said religious vigilantes last year killed at least 40 women in Basra because of how they dressed. Their mutilated bodies were found with notes warning others against "violating Islamic teachings."

Now, Basra University students say men and women are not afraid to study together in groups and hold graduation parties for the first time in years.

"I see some authority now. Before there was no authority," said Mushtaq Taleb Ali, a 22-year-old geography student.

Before men and women couldn't walk or study together," Ali said as he sat outside with two female classmates on the leafy campus. "Now we can."

Taroob Fadhil al-Azzawi, the principal of a girls' school, said she used to go to work fearing news of another student kidnapped or female teacher killed.

Al-Azzawi was robbed of her jewelry and her son's dowry by gunmen who stormed her home in broad daylight, locking the family in a room and not even bothering to hide their identities.

Her chief concerns are now overcrowded classrooms and a dearth of power and water as students try to concentrate in the heat.

"Now, we have a measure of security and safety," al-Azzawi said, fanning herself with a notebook as she graded final exams at her desk with palm trees rustling outside the open windows. "But we do not have electricity or water to drink. There are no cleaning services, no cleaners. These are big problems."

Electricity problems
Iraqi electricity and military officials blame Iran in large part for the electricity shortages, saying Tehran has cut supplies coming across the border by more than half since the military operation was launched on March 25. The Iranian border lies 10 miles east of Basra.

A senior electricity official in Basra, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of relations with Iran, said the local directorate has been forced to reduce public supplies from nearly 24 hours a day to as little as six hours per day.

The official said Iran claimed the reduction was a result of technical problems.

But Brig. Gen. Sabah Fadhil Motor, the commander of the Iraqi army's U.S.-trained 26th Brigade, 7th Division, echoed other Iraqi officials in accusing Iran of cutting off power in retaliation for the crackdown on Iranian-backed militias.

Tehran has consistently denied supporting violence in Iraq, and the Iranian Energy Ministry did not have any immediate comment on the electricity issue.

Basra residents, however, place the blame with the central government in Baghdad, which many feel has neglected the city's crumbling infrastructure.

Witness the narrow alleyways of Hayaniyah, a district that houses nearly half of Basra's 2 million people. Dirt roads and broken pavement stretch for blocks, and the summer heat intensifies the stench of sewage-filled puddles.

Hani Sebti Finjan, 45, lives in a small house off one of those roads with his three brothers, their wives and 25 children.

Waiting list too long
He said the waiting list is too long for repairs to the septic system but that neighbors take turns digging up the sewage to try to keep it from overflowing in the streets.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor of a room decorated with posters of Shiite religious figures, he welcomed the military and improved security but said "nobody has seen the government."

Still, markets are bustling with people cautiously emerging from a culture of fear, and the city's roads are now jammed with cars. Couples openly hold hands as they stroll along the downtown riverfront.

Hussein Kadhum Nahi, a 60-year-old government employee, said he now can take his two grandsons out for a late-night dinner.

"The situation has quieted down. It's much better, much safer," Nahi said as he and the two boys ate kebab at an outdoor cafe.