Escape from Basra

David Enders, for the Pulitzer Center
Basra, Iraq

Last Saturday, Rick and I went down to Basra to do some reporting on the ongoing fight between the governor and the other Shiite parties in Basra. Initially, we had requested access to the governor's everyday goings on and a meeting with the oil worker's union in the oil fields. For security purposes (since Basra is just as or even more lawless than Baghdad) the governor's office agreed to provide security for us. Our ride from the airport was in a fully armored SUV driven by the gov's bodyguard and accompanied by three pickups full of Iraqi soldiers. (See previous post about always being embedded in Iraq).

We were taken immediately to the governor's house, where we had what we considered a relatively frank interview and he promised to assist us in getting the other stuff we had requested assistance in getting. We watched some of the Asian Cup with him. After the game, the gov's bodyguard took us to "see Barsa," which mostly meant riding around in the armed convoy, but we were allowed 15 minutes on the street to "talk" to people. Imagine doing man on the street interviews surrounded by heavily armed Iraqi soldiers. Needless to say, people looked a bit nervous while I asked them questions, and didn't say anything bad about the gov. But, as I was constantly reminded, all this was "for my safety."

The provincial council of Basra, led by parties at odds w/the governor's, have been trying to depose him for months, and meanwhile, the Jeish al-Mehdi is taking over the streets. But the next morning, things started to fall apart. The previous night the prime minister's office had reaffirmed the no-confidence vote taken by the provincial council. Instead of having breakfast w/the governor, we were kept in the house we were staying in on his compound until noon and then taken to his office to witness perfunctory meetings. We were barred from a later meeting between the gov and the parties trying to oppose him.

The next morning, despite the promises of the bodyguard to drive us out to the oil fields for the meeting we had set up w/the oil workers, we were kept in the house all day.

Now, we hadn't expected the gov to show us everything. He's accused of kidnapping, murder, and misspending most of the reconstruction money allocated to the provincial government. The main dispute between him and the other parties is over the oversight of these projects and the patronage money they provide. But the other parties are also accused of kidnapping, murder, and corruption. Working in Basra as a foreigner at this point means being embedded w/the British or having the patronage of one of the parties, and we picked the strongest one, particularly because we've already filmed stuff w/the other major Shiite parties and the gov's Fadhila party was the last one we had left. We paid for it by not being able to see Basra.

We caught the first flight out of Basra we could get. Unfortunately, there was no direct flight to Baghdad until Saturday, so we flew first to Sulemaniya, then to Irbil, then back to Baghdad.

Flying in/out/inside of Iraq is the kind of experience that makes me smile whenever I hear people in US airports complain about delays. Among the obstacles I've personally dealt with while flying Iraqi Airways are flights canceled for lack of passengers, mortars hitting the runway, and Jalal Talabani's bodyguards bumping everyone off the flight so they can get to Baghdad.

And that still all beats the hell out of being stuck in that house in Basra.