Slow Progress

When clocks in Iraq were moved ahead one hour on April 1, the people of Basra didn't get the message. They were too busy coping with invading British troops, a loss of power and, later, looters to make the change. Most residents barricaded themselves in their homes for a couple of weeks and hoped to survive the mayhem. Last week they started to move around Iraq's second-largest city again, but nobody was quite sure of the time.

The confusion was so bad that the Brits finally declared that Basra, like Baghdad, would be on what the military calls Delta time--four hours ahead of GMT. Few people got the message, however; the clock on the minaret of the Abassayid Mosque remained an hour behind the olive-green wristwatches worn by the Desert Rats. Some Iraqis hewed to Baghdad time, others to Kuwaiti time, an hour behind. Most people kept their own time, especially workers who could leave for lunch on Baghdad time and return on "Basra time" two hours later.

With the shooting now mostly over, Coalition soldiers, aid workers, consultants and Iraqis themselves have turned their attention to rebuilding a country half-ruined by war. Proper timekeeping would help the process, but that's a minor headache. There is the huge yet delicate task of establishing a new national government--the first national conference of Iraqi leaders is expected soon in Baghdad--and local civil administrations must be cobbled together. Civil order and basic services must be restored in the cities and towns.

Basra was the first city liberated by Coalition forces, but in terms of reconstruction, it's served primarily as a case study in what not to do. Most people still don't have a reliable supply of electricity, and water shortages remain a problem. Engineers repair pumping stations, only to find people tapping into drinking-water lines to take a shower. Looters prowl the streets at night, and in a city of 1.2 million people, only a couple of restaurants have dared to reopen. Most people are irritable, even aid workers used to dealing with crises. "We don't seem to be making a lot of progress," said Andres Kruesi, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) director in Basra.

Basra should not have been so difficult to straighten out. The largely Shiite population welcomed the Coalition, and the city has been relatively peaceful. Not a single shot was fired at British troops last week. Coalition bombs caused relatively little damage to the city's infrastructure. But basic services collapsed anyway. Iraqi authorities, for example, shut down the power grid just before they fled. "It's like they just turned off the lights the way you --would when you leave your home," said Capt. Stuart Bage, a Royal Engineer.

Turning them back on hasn't been easy. There are shortages of both maintenance parts and natural gas for electrical plants. According to Kruesi, "Some [vandals] are beating up our engineers when they try to fix the holes. I just can't believe the Iraqi public would attack engineers trying to restore electricity." Even Saddam's sprawling presidential palace compound, where British troops are based, loses power regularly. ICRC engineers suspect that Baathist sympathizers, working underground, have been deliberately sabotaging the plants.

Security concerns have kept most non-governmental organizations and other international groups out of the city. To allay fears, the British military is working to rebuild the Basra police force. Returning Iraqi police officers are being vetted--but with thousands of men coming forward to apply for or to reclaim jobs, it's a big job. "It's a sort of slowly, slowly process," said Lt. Graham Chetwynd, one of the MPs working to rehire local police. A few Iraqi cops, cleared temporarily, are now manning traffic checkpoints next to soldiers. Most drivers just ignore them as well as the few working traffic lights in the dusty city. The police are not allowed to carry weapons--and certainly can't patrol at night, when most of the trouble now takes place. What the police will be paid, or even wear, has not been decided.

The Coalition has learned, the hard way, that establishing a good civil administration takes time. The British erred when, in haste, they appointed a local tribal leader and retired Iraqi general, Sheik Muzahim Kanan al-Tamimi, as head of an "interim advisory council." He in turn invited a lot of sheiks and tribal leaders to meet with him, and at their first gathering al-Tamimi pointedly refused to condemn Saddam Hussein. "We want to think about our future," he said. "The other is past." He also refused to use the term "Coalition forces," preferring "invaders" instead. Protesters took to the streets and denounced him as a Baathist, which he was.

Last week the British tried to correct that mistake by creating a second interim advisory council, headed by a non-Baathist businessman named Ghaleb Kubba, a wealthy banker and import-export trader. Kubba's 14-member committee, all non-Baathists, comprises various religious leaders along with business and professional people. While both interim groups have been holding meetings, only Kubba's group, with its pro-Coalition leaning, is finding favor with the Brits. Understandably, most Basratis are more worried about their own well-being than the common good, at least for the moment. "With the past government, no one was happy because they had no freedom," Kubba told NEWSWEEK in his first interview. Now, he says, people are unhappy for more immediate reasons--because they don't have practical necessities like electricity or water.

The situation is not as dire as the unruly Basra crowds make it seem. No one is dying of thirst, and the spring weather has been unusually mild, so idle air conditioners haven't been missed. Food is scarce in the markets, but most people stocked up on basic foodstuffs from the U.N. Oil-for-Food Program before the war started. "We don't have a humanitarian crisis yet," the ICRC's Kruesi said. All the now well-guarded hospitals have working generators, and even fire trucks were rumbling around town last week--kept busy by the many vandals. "It's still early days," said British military spokesman Capt. Nicky Hughes. "It's only been two weeks." He fully expects the mood of the people to improve once everything is working again, including the clocks.

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