The British are going, the British are going
The forecast by General Mike Jackson, former commander of British forces, to the effect that the British can only hope for an honorable retreat from Basra, is about to be realized. Let us leave the epithet "honorable" to British commentators, some of whom are already demanding a commission of inquiry to look into the functioning of the army in Iraq, but the withdrawal itself is just around the corner.
In May, according to a statement by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the British units, which number more than 4,000 soldiers, will cease all military activity and two months later they will leave Iraq entirely. Brown, unlike United States President George W. Bush, has not yet succeeded in ensuring the status of the British forces and Britain, Bush's only significant ally in the war on Iraq, is liable to withdraw from that country without any achievements.
The British forces that were greeted with flowers and rice in 2003 in the southern city of Basra where they centered their control will not hand over the control of the city to Iraqis. It is American forces that will take over the bases and it is they who will be responsible for security in the southern parts of the country alongside Iraqi troops.
This will not be a new experience for the Americans, who were "invited" by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to help in the intensive attack on subversive forces that took place last April. At that time, Maliki did not even bother to inform the British forces. When the British commander asked at that time to meet with Maliki, who had come to command the actions personally, the prime minister refused to see him. The anger at the British was manifested mainly because of the "private" agreements that the British had signed with the forces of Shi'ite insurgent Muqtada al Sadr Basra, whereby the British agreed to release Shi'ite prisoners from among Sadr's people in return for a Shi'ite promise not to attack British forces that come and go from the Basra airport.
Basra, a city that in the past had symbolized the good life in Iraq, the best restaurants and equally importantly the "land port" from which young Iraqis left for having fun in Kuwait and where women in short skirts walked around without fear, is now a religious city. It is currently enjoying relative quiet, the masked men who until last April cast a pall of fear over the city have almost entirely disappeared, children are going to school and doctors can now get to the clinics in safety. Ostensibly, this is an important achievement by Maliki's government, of which even American Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has taken hold in order to declare that Iran's influence has declined in Iraq and that Tehran's subversive representatives have lost the battle, but in Basra, which had been a center of activity for death squads, some of which were funded and trained by Iran, it is still too soon to eulogize Iran.
Last week a petition was circulated that calls for making Basra an autonomous region, like the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. The support of 10 percent of all eligible voters in the province would be sufficient for a referendum to be held. If the majority support independence, Basra is liable not only to become an independent region that will control one of the largest concentrations of oil in the country, but also a government center that maintains close ties with Iran. Maliki is opposed to the establishment of an independent region in Basra and sees it as a threat to the status of the central government in Iraq, but he has strong political opponents who do in fact support the idea and these derive some of their strength from Iran.
Basra after the British withdrawal is liable to develop into the new political battlefield in Iraq. This is a field sown with plentiful ethnic landmines that could well blow up both in Washington's face and in the face of the Iraqi government. Will Basra become a new focal point of local insurgence against the American forces that will replace the British? Will Iran just look on and watch its influence in Basra melt away? Not likely.
It appears that Iran, on the eve of president-elect Barack Obama's entry into the White House, can relax. Obama, who still aspires to implement his plan to withdraw the American army from Iraq within 16 months and is also prepared to start a dialogue with Iran, might well braid the two strands of his strategy into one rescue rope that would mean a freer hand for Iran in Iraq in return for Iraqi quiet that Iran would guarantee.
The relative security that prevails in some of the streets of Baghdad has revived not only the ice cream stands and the booksellers' street, al Mutanabi, the rehabilitation of which the government has invested several million dollars this year. The Baghdadi real estate market has also been enjoying a tremendous upswing. According to a report in the Iraqi newspaper Al-Zaman, the monthly rent for a good apartment in Baghdad amounts to about $420 and the price of a decent apartment can reach up to $900 per square meter. Iraqi citizens who were interviewed by the newspaper said that because of the rise in prices they aren't managing to find a place to live and therefore even people working for foreign companies, who are earning about $600 a month, will find it hard to pay the rent being asked.
Iraq's minister of housing reported last week that Iraq will need about 2.5 million housing units by the year 2015. She noted that only foreign investments will be able to provide the financing for such a large number of apartments. And all of this does not yet take into account the huge number of Iraqi refugees, more than 2 million, some of whom are liable not to find their homes when they return to their native land because the buildings have been destroyed by the security forces or stolen by neighbors or gangs. In short, Baghdad is the next real estate boom town, for those who are prepared to be paid in cheap barrels of oil.
Egyptian doctors are fed up. Many of them are working for starvation wages of NIS 170 a month; others are augmenting their salaries with odd jobs that are not in the field of medicine and only a small percentage of them are managing to get rich from a medical practice at clinics at which patients have to pay about NIS 60 per visit. Last year, after the professional association to which approximately 170,000 doctors belong did not manage to improve their pay, physicians set up the organization Doctors Without Rights, which has an Internet site where they report on the doctors' disgraceful employment conditions.
Although this year the government promised to raise their salaries, it has offered a vague schedule of payments, whereby beginning doctors will receive a 300 percent addition to their pay and veteran doctors only 30 percent (according to the official explanation, veteran doctors already have an economic base and therefore they do not need a large raise), but many of the doctors have still not received the increase that was promised to them in the summer. Now they want to go out on strike but they fear that a strike will cause them to be fired and because there are so many doctors and so few clinics, the government will be able to continue to play havoc with their pay.