One hundred years ago, the port city of Basra featured in world literature as one of the seven stops of the famous fictional mariner Sinbad, who debuted in 17th century versions of One Thousand and One Nights. Sinbad — known in the Arab World as Sindibad — sets sail from Basra, where he encounters supernatural phenomena, like a monstrous character “with eyes like coals of fire”. The famous adventure did not appear in the original 14th century version of the saga, but came much later, at a time when Basra was already world-famous, hailed by sailors, scholars, traders and clerics as a commercial hub, shipping route, and early incubator of the Islamic faith.
The fabled beauty of Basra has all but disappeared, after years of occupation, war, and crippling poverty. It is now a fraction of what it used to be and is presently the scene of massive demonstrations against Iranian tutelage in Iraq.
Located on Shatt Al Arab, a merging point of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, Basra is perched between Iran and Kuwait. The city was built in 636 by the Rashidoun Caliph Omar Bin Al Khattab, first used as a camping spot for his troops in their battles to spread the Islamic faith. At that time, there was no Sunni-Shiite divide, and Basra was governed by prominent figures in early Islamic history, like Abu Mousa Al Ashari, a companion of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), and later by Ziyad Ibn Abi Sufian, the brother of Muawiya I, founder of the Umayyad dynasty. The first mosque built outside the Arabian Peninsula was erected in Basra under Caliph Omar.
Basra earned an early reputation for mischief, rising in rebellion twice against the Umayyads, first in 683 and again in 701. It then became an important intellectual centre under the Abbasid Dynasty, where it got its famed School of Grammar and produced prominent Arab intellectuals like the mathematician and astronomer Ibn Al Haitham, the Sufi mystic Rabia Al Adawiya, and the literary giant Al Jahiz.
The Mongols sacked Baghdad and captured Basra in 1258, ending Abbasid rule. It was subsequently captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1668 and remained under their control until falling to the British in November 1914, months after the outbreak of the First World War. The British revamped the city, modernising its architecture, upgrading its infrastructure, and transforming it into a commercial hub for their trade with the Far East. During the Second World War, it was a major route for Allied supplies to Joseph Stalin, administered by senior British officers.
Basra under the Hashemite Crown
Like the rest of Iraq, Basra was ruled by the Hashemite family of the Arabian desert from 1921 until 1958. The British installed a young emir, Faisal I, as king of Iraq, after a brief unsuccessful stint in Damascus, where he was ejected by French forces. Prominent Iraqi analyst Safaa Khalaf, a Basra native, told Gulf News: “Basra opposed the new monarch, asking that the king of Iraq be an Iraqi national from Basra, proposing Taleb Al Naqib instead of Faisal I.” When the British refused, Basra notables asked for their city’s independence from the rest of Iraq. Again, the British said no, noted Khalaf, “launching an aerial bombardment of Basra and striking at the homes of its tribesmen who stood up to Faisal. When Faisal finally came to Iraq, he entered Basra first before heading to Baghdad.”
Three months after the Iraqi Air Force was created in April 1931, it launched its first operation on Basra, to quell an uprising against forced conscription into the Iraqi Army.
The Iran-Iraq War
Basra remained a hotbed for dissent from the 1920s until today. Under President Abdul Salam Aref, it got its university in 1964, created to address the needs of southern Iraq. During the Iran-Iraq War that started in 1980, Basra lost much of its previous glory, repeatedly shelled by the Iranian army. Throughout the 1980s the city was the scene of some of the war’s worst battles. In July 1982, Operation Ramadan was launched on Basra by 100,000 Iranian troops, resulting in the death of 7,500 Iraqis, mostly from Basra. Five years later, Iran launched Operation Karbala 5, advancing into Iraqi territory and briefly occupying parts of east Basra. This operation led to a death toll of 20,000 Iraqis.
Basra versus Saddam Hussain
The Shiites of Basra rose in rebellion against Saddam shortly after the Gulf War in 1991. The Iraqi dictator accused them of being agents of foreign powers, and enforced collective punishment on the residents of Basra, with mass executions, forced displacement of prominent people, and a demographic shake-up of the city. Basrans were shot, tortured, and sent to the dungeons of the Iraqi regime. Rather than silence the Basrans, Saddam’s measures only prompted them to rise again in 1999. Saddam kept Basra under lock and key, ordering complete neglect of the city, depriving it of state funds, which resulted in a major deterioration in living conditions — resulting in chronic problems like water shortages and electricity blackouts that are still present today, and which triggered the current demonstrations against Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi. On April 6, 2003 Basra fell to the British Army, yet again, and remained under their direct military control until 2007.
Basra after 2003
With a historic axe to grind against the people of Basra, Tehran invested heavily in subjugating Basra to Iranian control, bankrolling death squads that roamed the city by night in 2003-2005, assassinating Sunni personalities. Iran’s prime agent at the time was none other than Muqtada Al Sadr, a firebrand cleric who led the Mehdi Army that ran the streets of Basra, until they were ejected by the Americans in March 2008. In 2006, Shiites made up 45 per cent of Basra’s population, as opposed to 55 per cent Sunnis. By 2014, thanks to the policies of the Nouri Al Maliki government, 60 per cent of Basra had become Shiite, while the Sunni population dropped to 40 per cent. Pro-Iranian slogans and posters draped the government buildings of Basra, which started looking more like an Iranian satellite city than an Arab one.
By 2018, the people of Basra had had enough — rising in anger against the Iranians and torching their consulate in the city. “The city has been a pain for all regimes that ruled Iraq,” said Khalaf, adding: “Just like it was the gateway for British occupation of Iraq in 1914, it was also the entry point for the Americans and the British in 2003. Often it was from where regimes rose and fell in Iraq.”
Published in Gulf News on 14 September 2018.