For Basra the poll heralds the start of Shia ascendancy

By Kim Sengupta and Ahmed Hakim in Basra

Published: 15 October 2005

Independent

"They used to say this was the Venice of the East, the Amsterdam of Asia," said Hameed al-Rahimi, 64, standing on the corniche at Basra. " Look at it now, look how sad it looks. But these are new times, and we shall see a new Basra, inshallah."

Today's vote on the new constitution is seen here as heralding the start of the Shia ascendancy. With a federal Iraq will come control of the southern oilfields, and with that a shift of political and economic power from Baghdad to Basra.

There is some apprehension of violence. The Iraqi army, meanwhile, has received reports that 12 "bomb cars" have been sent to the south by Sunni insurgents.

Overall, the mood is of optimism and bullish confidence in the Shia heartland. It manifests itself in the Iraqi police confronting the British military, in the provincial council cutting power to Baghdad for a week and negotiating commercial deals with Iran and the Gulf states, in the consumer durables flooding in from Kuwait and spilling from the pavements in local markets.

It is a source of great pleasure among Shias that Basra has 17 hours of electricity a day compared withBaghdad's 11, a reversal of the position under the Baathist regime, where the capital got automatic priorityand the south was subjected to periodic bouts of punitive power cuts.

The man who decided to switch off the power to Baghdad is Mohamed al-Waili, the governor of Basra, who ordered the shutdown from Basra's three power stations. It was a double flexing of muscles, not only towards central government but also towards the British and US authorities, who can do nothing to prevent it.

Lieutenant-Colonel Chris Andersen, the Australian head of "civic military co-operation" can only shrug. "People here quite rightly want to keep more here and people in Baghdad quite rightly want more sent up there," he says. Despite imports from neighbouring countries the daily power output is still less than before the US-led invasionof two and half years ago.

Governor Waili had declared non-cooperation with British authorities following the storming of a police station by British forces to rescue soldiers arrested by a branch of the Iraqi police infiltrated by shadowy militia group, the Jamiat. The governor declared a temporary truce after the Foreign Office agreed "in principle" to pay compensationto those who suffered loss or injuries.

But the reality was illustrated when the British military took British television journalists to a "friendly" police station, at Marbid, to meet Brigadier Mathur, the commander. Plainclothes officers from the investigations support unit, a branch said to be under Jamiat influence, threw the British forces and the journalists out of the police station.

The brigadier was forced to meet the journalists at a warehouse due to be used, 48 hours later, as a command and control centre for referendum voting. It was ankle deep in water.

The television crew was then taken to oil refinery to show examples of reconstruction. But, as they approached the building, the gates were slammed shut. Soldiers muttered that the Americans would not put up with it.

Adel al-Thamiry, a professor at Basra University and human rights activist, said: "I am afraid the British are paying the price for doing deals with the militias in the past. These people are now strong enough to try and take on the British."

And there is a lethal side to the Shia assertiveness. Christians have been killed for supposedly selling alcohol, Sunnis because they were allegedly Baathists.