Farewell to Basra

The British are fully withdrawing from Iraq today, leaving a legacy, for the second time in a century.

They were occupiers of Iraq once before, after World War I; their dead lie still in a north Baghdad cemetery.

Now they leave 179 more dead. Their legacy this time: Basra, the southern port city and Iraq’s second most populous after Baghdad. The British, of course, have been stationed in southern Iraq, mainly in Basra, since the war began in 2003.

A lot has transpired in Basra since I last saw it in 2003 — a coalition forces “success story” that turned to utter madness under the grip of militant Shiite militias.

AJC photographer Bita Honarvar and I were there, in the last few days of our trip, drained by heat and war. We saw a baby born with its brain outside its skull. The Iraqis blamed it on the use of depleted uranium by the Americans. We did not know exactly why the baby was so deformed. All we knew is that it would not survive.

We survived on crackers and vegetarian MREs, given to us in Baghdad by 3rd Infantry Division boys. Cheese tortellini has never tasted that great again.

I remember going up to the rooftop of our hotel, where the balmy breeze off the Shatt al-Arab smacked our cheeks and blew our hair. The air smelled of the sea, so close is Basra to the Persian Gulf.

We watched day turn into night. Iran emerged before us, the lights of villages and towns twinkling before us like perfect Harry Winston diamonds.

Bita’s father, Samad, grew up here. In Abadan. I believe this was the closest she had ever been.

From all accounts, life along the mighty river, a convergence of the Tigris and Euphrates, has re-ignited. There are now parks and cafes open where Iraqis can take their families to cool off and relax.

But back then, we only had one comfort — Iraq’s famously creamy ice- cream. It was a good thing our fixer knew where to find it among the despair.

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