December 23, 2010

THERE IS NO IRAQ:

Southern Iraqi City Eyes Break from Baghdad (AP, 23/12/2010)

It's a constant complaint in Basra, where a boom in foreign oil investment has spurred a push to create a self-ruled region in Iraq's south. The constitution allows provinces — or groups of them — to break away into autonomous regions akin to Kurdistan in the north, and Basra's provincial council has twice sought to hold a referendum, only to meet stalling from Baghdad. The movement is likely to rev up once more now that a new government in Baghdad was formed this week.

An autonomy move in Basra could further weaken Iraq's central government by dividing the nation and lead to tussles over control of oil, as have occurred between Baghdad and the Kurds. A breakaway Basra could also fall into turmoil as local factions vie for power — and could come under heavy influence of neighboring Iran, which already is looking to increase its economic ties with the mainly Shiite province.

Basra is strategically crucial for Iraq. With a population of about 3 million people, Basra is Iraq's second-largest province and home to about 70 percent of the country's proven oil reserves of 143.1 billion barrels. The province, located on the Persian Gulf bordering Kuwait and Iran, is Iraq's only outlet to the sea and is the hub for most of Iraq's oil exports of nearly 1.9 million barrels a day to the international market.

Still, Basra looks like a city forgotten by history, battered by Iraq's repeated conflicts, starting with the 1980-1988 war with Iran through the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Impoverished residential settlements crowd its outskirts. Piles of garbage and pools of stagnant water and sewage mar its dust-covered streets where donkeys, stray dogs, sheep and goats roam. Some neighborhoods endure water and electricity shortages. The biggest new investment is coming from Iran — including a nearly $1 billion plan to build housing, hotels and a mall.

"While the foreign companies, mainly the oil ones, are entering Basra to tap into its resources, Basrawis are being crushed by deprivation and poverty," said Wail Abdul-Latif, a former lawmaker who is the chief architect of Basra's autonomy bid.

Oil promises a bright future for Basra. Of the 15 oil and gas deals Iraq has awarded to private firms since last year — the first deals of their kind in more than three decades — six are for fields in Basra province.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 23, 2010 1:23 PM
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