After decades of war, siege and occupation, it is rare to see an Iraqi audience joyful; rare to see women and men laughing and singing happily together in a place that unites them. They breathe in the meaning of being Iraqi with bright colours far from the mourning black that has become the daily reluctant norm. It is rare. And yet, thousands of Iraqis and Arabs gathered in such a joyful atmosphere for the opening of the Gulf Cup this week as Iraq hosted the tournament for the first time since it was held in Baghdad in 1979.
The opening ceremony summed up the civilised history of the country and the unity of emotions that transcend religious sectarianism, national strife and everything else that has polluted the name of Iraq since the US-led invasion and occupation in 2003. It was a night made for visitors to the city of Basra to enjoy the hospitality of its people, who are known for their kindness and generosity. The opening of the tournament in the Basra International Stadium — also known as the Palm Trunk Stadium — was an emotional reminder for the locals, as the city was once proud of its 16 million palm trees, most of which were destroyed by wars between 1980 and 2003.
The opening was dazzling with the lighting in place. The Iraqi Electricity Company confirmed that it lit the roads leading to the Sports City, its surroundings and its doors with new lighting installations. The company also launched a campaign for the concept of rationing electricity, and the senior local officials supervised the mobilisation of the electricity company staff for the Gulf Cup on the ground.
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This ensures that football fans and TV viewers have power during the tournament, but raises many questions. Why is the media making such a big issue about the preparations to provide adequate lighting? What is so unusual about lighting an international football stadium and the surrounding streets? Why isn’t such supervision and provision made at all times to ensure that all of Basra has adequate electricity supplies? Is the area going to be plunged into darkness when the tournament is over?
If the government bodies responsible are able to meet FIFA’s requirements for hosting the tournament, within a record time, why can’t they make the same effort to provide the basic essential electricity supply needed by Iraqi citizens for the past 20 years, and which is their fundamental right, not a favour from officials? Or is this sudden appearance of good lighting only to invest looted resources in order to save face? Football has been called the world’s new religion, so is the perfect vehicle for saving face while concealing the reality of the miserable daily life of most Iraqis.
People have the right, of course, to relieve their pain, but this should not be done by covering the real causes of the disease and preventing a full recovery.
The reality of the city of Basra, as it is in other Iraqi provinces and cities, including the capital Baghdad, is that the streets are dark and filled with rubbish. The local people have begged officials to visit the city to see the situation for themselves and understand that power outages, whatever the reason for them, not only mean a lack of light, but also the paralysis of daily life, medical services and economic development.
The people of Basra face a daily crisis with a lack of potable water due to salinity, the impact of drought, and the rise in temperatures which are among the highest in the world. Chronic pollution threatens everyone, especially children, with diseases that are easy to eliminate if there is a sincere intention to find solutions and put an end to the greed of corrupt politicians. This greed has swallowed the financial allocations and hindered the completion of more than 90 water purification and desalination projects. This is happening in a city rich in oil, engineers and qualified workers, while 80 per cent of oil and gas sales contribute to Iraq’s state budget.
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The awful conditions are not limited to electricity, water and pollution; they also include the deterioration of the security situation. Like those in other provinces, the people of Basra live with tension arising from conflicts between militias affiliated with government parties and clan disputes. Protesters highlighting these dire conditions are subject to all means of violence. UN reports confirm the failure of the official commissions to investigate the kidnapping and murder of protesters, and the disregard for holding to account those responsible. Apart from two cases focused on low-ranking members of the police forces, the crimes are attributed to “unidentified armed elements”.
Criminal immunity is due to a number of investigators working on sensitive cases facing threats of retaliation. A UNAMI report, for example, provided details of the killing of an intelligence officer assigned by the Basra Investigation Court to look into “death squad” cases with the support of intelligence officers from the interior ministry. The crime was said to have been committed by “unidentified armed elements”. On 7 December, 2021, a device attached to a motorcycle exploded in Basra, killing two civilians and injuring four others, shortly after an investigating officer had passed by in a vehicle.
Generous Basra still has its share of the injustice that sits uneasily across all of Iraq. This and other problems in Iraq will only be resolved when the viruses of corruption and sectarianism, and everything that has been created to perpetuate them, are eradicated.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 9 January 2023
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.