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Iraq Turmoil in Basra

August 11, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: This weekend, there were riots in Basra, which had been relatively quiet until now. For an update, I spoke with New York Times reporter Robert Worth by telephone late this afternoon. Robert Worth, welcome. Tell us what the situation is now in Basra.

ROBERT WORTH: Well, as you know, there have been riots here for several days because of the lack of gasoline and power. Today, the British military brought in 25 million liters of gas seized from smugglers, also some of their own supplies. The U.S. Military brought in some fuel from Kuwait as well. They distributed that in Basra and in the surrounding area. And in some cases, the tankers, as they came into the city, were greeted with cheering crowds. So, you know, this definitely helped to alleviate the situation.

There had been gas lines stretching for miles, incredible lines, people waiting for more than 24 hours in their cars to get gasoline. And those have dissipated. The lines are very short now in the city. There were a few scattered demonstrations today and some rock throwing, especially foreign cars. But it was really… by comparison with the past few days, it was very quiet today, and the authorities here are hoping that that stays… stays that way.

TERENCE SMITH: And the demonstrations, I gather, were also against a lack of regular electricity. Has that been relieved?

ROBERT WORTH: Yes, the electricity is better now. They’ve been working very hard to improve that. It remains the case though here, as in all of Iraq, that if you haven’t got a generator, you know, you’re just not going to have steady electricity. You can probably hear there’s one running right behind me.

TERENCE SMITH: You know, people must wonder why in oil-rich Iraq energy and fuel is a problem. Why is it?

ROBERT WORTH: Well, largely because the refineries, which require their own power. The refinery down here runs in theory on four generators, but in fact those generators have been conking out. They’re 30 years old; they’re very rickety. It’s running, really, on one generator now. So it’s a combination of problems.

It’s also a matter of looting and sabotage. There’s been so much of that that it’s cut down the power lines. All four power lines running out from the main refinery here in Basra have been sabotaged, and there’s been similar sabotage elsewhere in the country. So it’s also a combination of that and the intense heat and humidity here which is… has spiked the demand upward.

TERENCE SMITH: And who’s behind the sabotage, and is it still going on?

ROBERT WORTH: I’m sure it’s still going on. There’s been a lot of added security just recently by the British military here to try to protect the refinery and power lines. It’s hard to say. You know, as with other kinds of attacks against U.S. forces in particular, there may be some remnants of the regime who were doing that. But, you know, I think also this is obviously a very poor country. People scrape the copper off of power lines and resell it. It’s partly just a matter of people who have no other means of income.

TERENCE SMITH: And what’s the immediate prospect? Do you and do the authorities there anticipate more trouble, or do they think that they have it behind them? What’s the situation?

ROBERT WORTH: It’s hard to say. I mean, it does seem some U.N. officials were saying yesterday that it looks like there are long-term problems in terms of not just gasoline but other fuels– kerosene, which is an important winter heating fuel, and cooking fuel, cooking gas, rather. For the moment, though, the U.S. and the British military forces are doing all they can to bring in extra supplies.

I mean, that seems to be calming the riots for the moment. Long-term, again, it’s hard to say, and it really depends on whether they can keep this sabotage under control which, you know, was part of the bigger equation of maintaining security here.

TERENCE SMITH: And the riots and demonstrations, do they in fact seem to be over the shortage of fuel and other basic services, or is there a political agenda behind them?

ROBERT WORTH: Down here in Basra, as you know, it’s been pretty quiet. There have not been… there really haven’t been attacks on military forces. There hasn’t been the kind of sort of random violence you saw in much of the rest of the country. So my sense has been these really are riots about the fuel. They started almost a week ago when the prices began to spike upwards and the lines started getting longer at gas stations.

They don’t seem to be particularly organized. They happen at gas stations. They’re obviously very tied to that lack of gas and of the problem of power. It was also about a week ago that the temperatures went up and the humidity got much worse. So in Basra, at any rate, it seems to be very much a local phenomenon.

TERENCE SMITH: Robert, do the British troops who are largely in control down there seem to be any better prepared to handle this sort of civil unrest than the U.S. troops further North?

ROBERT WORTH: Well, it’s difficult to say. I mean, they certainly have a different approach. The British generally seem more relaxed. You don’t see them out in force the way you do in Baghdad quite as much, and they’re often not wearing flak jackets or helmets. One has the sense that they mix with the local population more easily. And that’s, of course, in part because, you know, they haven’t had their fellow soldiers getting knocked off by snipers or bombs the way the Americans have.

They also started a little bit earlier with dealing with local tribal sheiks and religious authorities, trying to negotiate solutions to problems, like for instance if an Iraqi had been killed in an accident involving the military, the British would try to negotiate and talk to the tribe in question, and the Americans have actually started applying those tactics up north, particularly in Fallujah. But, no, I think generally speaking, the British have been pretty good at handling these situations.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. Robert Worth, thank you so much for bringing us up to date.