The Siege of Basra*
by N.D. Jayaprakash
April 3, 2003
According to the British forces, Basra became a military objective "in order to get humanitarian aid to civilians there"! In their view, the only stumbling block in providing such aid is the "1000 die-hard Saddam Hussein supporters" entrenched in Basra. In the name of eliminating this opposition, the US and British forces are destroying the city and its suburbs with impunity through relentless aerial bombing and artillery fire. Is war being waged in order to send in humanitarian aid? While a colossal humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in and around Basra, the international community keeps watching the ongoing brutality against its 1.5 million or more residents almost as a helpless by-stander.
On 18 March 2003, The New York Times had reported that: "Military and allied officials familiar with the planning of the upcoming campaign say they hope that a successful and 'benign' occupation of Basra that results in flag-waving crowds hugging British and American soldiers will create an immediate and positive image worldwide while also undermining Iraqi resistance elsewhere." It was with these high hopes that the Coalition Forces led by the United States had launched their predatory war against Iraq on 20 March 2003. On the very third day of the attack, according to news reports, "United States and British troops [had] moved into the strategic southern port city of Basra…" (see AP and AFP reports quoted in The Hindu, 23 March 2003). The same news reports also claimed that: "As coalition forces advanced, an entire Iraqi army division - the 51 Infantry Division with 8000 men and 200 tanks, a key unit in the defence of Basra - gave itself up, US military officials said."
The above reports tended to give the impression that Basra, the second largest city of Iraq inhabited by some 1.5 million people, had been captured without a fight. However, as events have unfolded it has become abundantly clear that these baseless reports - like several other such bogus claims emanating from official sources - were part of the standard misinformation campaign indulged in by the US and its allies in the ongoing war. Just two days after the above claims were made public the reality could no longer be hidden.
According to The Hindu (25 March 2003): "An AFP report from Basra, quoting British officials, said fierce Iraqi resistance forced British troops to withdraw today from Basra to regroup…. Military officials admitted they had vastly underestimated the strength of Iraqi resistance and the loyalty of Basra's population to the regime of Mr. Hussein." Summing up the situation, Paul Reynolds, BBC News Online world affairs correspondent, wrote: "The fact is that Basra is not undergoing a benign occupation. It has just been declared a military target by British forces which have come under attack from inside. This was a city which the British spokesman Colonel Chris Veron said early on was not of military importance."
(See http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/2884769.stm, 25 March 2003).
Reynolds then went on to add: "What has happened? The explanation according to British and American officials is that Saddam Hussein's forces are still oppressing the people who cannot show their true emotions." But Reynolds was not entirely convinced by this explanation. Therefore he commented: "However, it might not be as simple as that. Consider what happened in Basra last Saturday [22 March 2003] when there were air raids. The Qatari television channel al-Jazeera had a team in the city and it sent back graphic pictures of dead and wounded civilians which were widely shown in the Arab world…. People do not take kindly to being bombed, even by 'friendly forces'."
When the false hopes of a cakewalk into Basra were belied, British forces revealed their next strategy on 25 March by propagating that "taking Iraq's southern city of Basra has now become a military objective in order to get humanitarian aid to civilians there."
(See http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/2882967.stm) But before providing humanitarian aid, humanitarian needs had to be accentuated. They had already taken care of that. Unlike Baghdad, where the civilian infrastructure was more or less left intact at least during the first week of the bombings, targets in Basra definitely included critical civilian infrastructure.
What the media has failed to highlight is the fact that it was during the earliest air raids over Basra that the main high-voltage power transmission cables to the city were destroyed. Apart from plunging the city into darkness during the night, the primary effect of the power cut was on the city's potable water supply system. The Wafa' Al Qaed Raw Water Pumping Station, which is situated on the bank of the Shatt al-Arab river, is dependent on electricity for circulating water from the river to the five water treatment plants and one booster pump across the city. But "the break-down of the power system in Basra as a result of the destruction of high-voltage cables during the hostilities has led to the disruption of water circulation since 21 March." This was the assessment made by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which had quickly arrived on the scene. (See Operational Update Iraq 20-25 March 2003 at http://www.icrc.org/eng)
For the last 12 years, ICRC has been involved in repairing and upgrading of water and sewage treatment facilities in Iraq, including those in Basra. According to the ICRC: "By 22 March, engineers and technicians of the ICRC along with Basra's water board staff had managed to connect several water treatment plants to the Shatt al-Arab river and to operate back-up generators at these plants. As a result of these emergency measures, around 30 % of the population of Basra regained access to water. However, this was only a temporary and partial solution and the situation remained critical." (Ibid.) On 24 March, after contacting both parties to the conflict, the ICRC was able to cross the frontline and gain access to the main water pumping facility.
The ICRC field staff also stated that over the next few days they "will work to facilitate further access for local technicians who may be able to assess the damage to the high-power voltage lines and repair them." This was because the ICRC was "concerned that further damage to power stations or high-voltage transmission cables will continue to disrupt water-production facilities, which will have a direct impact on overall health situation of the population." (Ibid.) It was obvious that the damaged transmission cables were in an area on the outskirts of Basra occupied by the British forces. By 26 March, after the technical team managed to partially restart the main water pumping facility using three of the six stand-by generators, the ICRC estimated that 50 per cent of the city's inhabitants had access to drinking water. The rest were probably taking water directly from the river, where sewage is dumped.
The ICRC remained "concerned about the situation in other urban centres south of Basra that have been disconnected from the water-supply network since last Friday [21 March]. These include Al-Zubayr, Safwan and Jabjud. It has so far not been possible to carry out repair work in these areas." (ICRC Press Release, 26 March 2003, ibid.) The ICRC also pointed out that the Wafa' Al Qaed "station not only serves Basra but also surrounding towns." The ICRC further warned that the situation remained "precarious since all water treatment plants and pumping stations now rely on back-up generators. The generators only provide a fraction of the normal power available to the water facilities, not to mention the difficulties of obtaining fuel and spare parts." (News from ICRC staff in the field, 27 March 2003, ibid.) There has been little change in the situation since then.
In its latest report, the ICRC has stated that: "There is now a limited supply of water and electricity serving different parts of Basra in turn…. Despite the slight improvements achieved, the ICRC remains concerned about the water and power situation. The use of generators is a temporary solution that can only produce results if the equipment can be constantly monitored and maintained by skilled personnel." (ICRC News, Iraq: Daily Bulletin, 31 March 2003, ibid.) The fact remains that the British army, which has laid siege on Basra, has done nothing so far to repair the damaged power transmission lines. This is having an adverse impact on the lives of the civilian population. From news reports that are trickling in from areas in and around Basra, it is clear that a humanitarian crisis is brewing there largely due to shortage of safe drinking water.
With hindsight, it would now appear that disruption of electric-supply leading to grave shortage of safe drinking water to the population in and around Basra was part of a deliberate ploy on the part of the Coalition Forces to create a humanitarian crisis there. What is lending credence to the suspicion that this crisis in and around Basra is stage-managed is the reported strategy on the part of the Coalition Forces to gain confidence of the Iraqi people by providing them "humanitarian aid". Even before the safe drinking water supply system was disrupted in Basra, a British supply ship 'Sir Galahad' was already on its way to the port of Umm Qasr and shortly arrived there "loaded with the first military shipment of relief aid for Iraqi civilians." (See Associated Press report in The Hindu, 29 March 2003).
The phrase "military shipment of relief aid" aptly described what its intended objective was. The AP report went on to add that: "The cargo consists of 100 tonnes of water and 150 tonnes [of food and medical supplies]." Considering the fact that the Water Pumping Station at Basra has a capacity to draw 20,000 cubic metres of water per hour (see War on Iraq at http://www.icrc.org/eng), the much touted shipment of 100 tonnes (about 200 cubic meters or 100,000 litres) of water all the way from Britain is nothing but a cheap public relations exercise. Instead of taking steps to quickly restore power supply to the pumping station at Basra and to enable it to restart the water treatment and circulation process, the invading British forces are intent on posing as benefactors by distributing imported water to the needy Iraqi population! The British forces had also planned to lay a three-kilometre long water pipeline from Kuwait to Southern Iraq for this purpose.
(It was reported on 31 March that the pipeline from Kuwait to Southern Iraq near Umm Qsar had been laid and that it would supply 2 million litres of water daily. "At the moment this is the only guaranteed potable water supply in southern Iraq", said Major Hugh Ward, a British military spokesman. [See http://society.guardian.co.uk/aidforiraq/story/0,12972,926587,00.html] What was left unsaid was that drinking water crisis arose there due to damage inflicted on Umm Qsar's water treatment plant, which has a capacity to treat 3 million litres of water a day, and due to disruption of power supply during the invasion by the British forces.)
CNN's Christiane Amanpour has offered an explanation that will leave no one in doubt about the strategic objective of providing "humanitarian aid" through the military. Ms. Amanpour, CNN's Chief International Correspondent, who was at Umm Qasr to welcome the arrival of 'Sir Galahad' on 28 March, began her report thus: "This port has been the focus of a lot of attention…" (Sure, it has been! Both CNN and BBC have been repeatedly drawing attention of the viewers that it would be through Umm Qasr that humanitarian aid would begin to flow into Iraq as soon as Iraqi forces were driven out from the port area. It was as though the port of Umm Qsar was to be used solely for bringing in humanitarian aid! This announcement was so often repeated over both the channels that it became a little incongruous. After all, why should a war be waged against Iraq in order to bring in humanitarian aid into that country?)
Ms. Amanpour then let the cat out of the bag. "It is not just about humanitarian aid for the needy," she said, "but also as a very powerful political and psychological tool. For the British, certainly, this war is as much about heavy metal fighting as it is about winning hearts and mind. We keep getting this message every day about how they want to get the civilian population on their side and this is part of that battle."
(See http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/meast/03/28/otsc.irq.amanpour/index.html) So this is what the PR exercise by the British forces was all about: to use humanitarian aid "as a very powerful political and psychological tool." As CNN's news editor added: "The plan is to get the people to separate from the political leadership and give them space to 'rise up' against the leadership."
Kylie Morris, a BBC correspondent in southern Iraq, too had noted that "there is a vigorous hearts and minds campaign under way using humanitarian assistance to win the confidence of ordinary Iraqis." (See http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/2890883.stm)
While the PR exercise about providing "humanitarian aid" was being enacted, other plans too were underway "to get the people to separate from the political leadership". Immediately after the British forces were forced to make a hasty retreat from Basra after their initial surge, rumours about an uprising within Basra began to be highlighted in the media. On the night of 25 March, BBC announced that: "A 'popular civilian uprising' is reported to be taking place in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, according to British military intelligence officials. A spokesman in Kuwait said there appeared to be some form of civilian revolt taking place, but as yet there is no independent confirmation of the report." (See http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/2886235.stm).
The Report then went on to add: "According to military intelligence officials, Iraqi troops in the city have turned mortar fire on their own civilians in an attempt to crush the unrest." The bit about the "mortar fire" was a give-away! Even assuming that there was an uprising within Basra and that the Iraqi forces were trying to suppress it, mortar is hardly the ideal weapon of choice for use within the city - that too against targets at close range. But the Coalition Forces were firm on instilling the belief that a rebellion had broken out against the "1000 die-hard Saddam Hussein supporters [who] were based in the city and keeping the population in check". (Ibid.) This was not surprising since "Washington and London have openly been hoping for civilian uprisings against the Iraqi leadership. Such an event in Basra - a city of 1.3 million people - [they had said] would be a significant development." (See http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/2894867.stm)
In the opinion of Michael Dobbs and Walter Pincus, Washington Post Staff Writers: "Before the war began, U.S. officials had painted a picture of a repressed Shiite population eagerly awaiting its hour of deliverance from the three decades of dictatorial rule." They then went on to add that: "In military terms, a Shiite rebellion might have been a serious blow to Hussein…. The Shiites form half the population of Iraq but have been excluded from Hussein's Sunni-dominated government. " They did not fail to mention that: "The CIA and U.S. military intelligence also have been in touch with Shiite representatives…". In the background of these concerted attempts within the establishment to win over the "Shiite" population, the reactions to the reported "uprising" in Basra were, overwhelming.
On 26 March, London's Guardian described it "as the most encouraging single development since the war began." It further added that: "If an uprising is sustained and is ultimately successful, it could trigger similar revolts in the other Shia cities of southern Iraq…". Brian Whitaker of the same newspaper also noted that the British forces had "weighed in with artillery support for the rebelling Shia population...". With this overt emphasis on supporting the "Shiites", one wonders as to whether U.S. and British forces have invaded Iraq in order to resolve the "Shia-Sunni" dispute? The fact is that they have merely drawn out their devious communal card. By playing upon the religious sentiments of various communities, they hope to sharpen differences among the Iraqis and thereby reap rich dividends for themselves. It is a practice that governments in Britain and the U.S. regularly indulge in.
However, reports of an "uprising" turned out to be totally baseless. BBC itself came forward to disclaim reports about the uprising. A report released by it on 28 March said: "A Western journalist who managed to get inside the southern Iraqi city of Basra says earlier claims of a popular uprising appear to be incorrect." (See http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/2897143.stm) David Fox of Reuters news agency, who had been invited by people into their homes, told BBC that "any claims that there has been a popular uprising 'have not been substantiated whatsoever'. " He went on to add that: "The population isn't in a panic, they are complaining about the lack of water and also food." (Ibid.) Since reports about an "uprising" have proved false, is it not more than likely that such tales were spun to provide an ideal cover for blaming the Iraqi forces for the widespread death and destruction that is caused by indiscriminate shelling & bombing of civilian areas in Basra by the British?
Under the garb of forcing a regime change, the Coalition Forces are riding roughshod over the Iraqi people and ravaging their country. Dreadful killing of civilians and reckless destruction of civilian infrastructure with deadly weapons is increasing day by day, particularly in southern and central Iraq. The psychological trauma, which the defenceless population - particularly the young - is forced to experience is bound to leave deep scars on their minds. To mask their desperate acts of aggression, the Coalition Forces have undertaken a 'campaign to win hearts and minds' by distributing "humanitarian aid". But the vast majority of the Iraqi population is unlikely to forgive the U.S. and British governments for the terrible sufferings that have been inflicted upon them. They are also unlikely to forget that it was particularly at the instance of U.S. and Britain that strict economic sanctions with their devastating consequences have been in place against Iraq for the last 12 years. Despite this, Iraqi nationalism has had a potent influence. As one BBC correspondent has noted: "A coming together often happens to a people under siege, and a siege is what the Iraqis are now experiencing." (Reynolds, op cit.)
The international community cannot just sit back and let the Iraqis fend for themselves. If the naked aggression by the US-British forces were not stopped forthwith, the price of indifference would be enormous.
N.D.Jayaprakash is a member of the Delhi Science Forum/Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace in New Delhi, India. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
* As compared to other urban centres in Iraq, Basra is one city about which relatively more information is currently available. Basra is just an example of the tragic fate that has befallen the Iraqi people.