After decades of neglect, corruption, crime, and --more recently-- sectarian thuggery, this nexus of shipping and oil production stands a chance of becoming a major locus of trade and cultural development for the nation of Iraq. With The Iraqi-planned and executed "Knight's Charge" last month, a monstrous melange of Iranian-backed Mahdi Army/Special Groups militias and brutal but banal criminal rackets was flushed out like a long-neglected septic tank. The results for the lives of ordinary Basrans has been nothing short of a revelation.
Along Basra's corniche, a road running along the Shatt al Arab waterway that empties into the Persian Gulf, a rebirth is underway. Restaurants stay open late, no longer forced by insecurity to shut early. Men smoke water pipes in outdoor cafes, unconcerned about kidnappers.
On a recent night, Salam Hassan, 20, sold Arabic pop music CDs and cellphone ring tones on the sidewalk. A few months ago, Sadrists beat him up and fired a bullet that grazed his knee.
His crime: selling non-Islamic religious songs and ring tones.
After the offensive, he reopened. Now he sells 20 CDs a day, a sign that his customers also are bolder.
Weddings in Basra had become silent affairs. Kidnappers often targeted them, and gunmen sometimes tossed grenades into the wedding processions of rivals.
The sounds of drums and dancing now fill the streets every Thursday, when most weddings take place. Cars and buses are decked in flowers and play loud music as revelers head to local hotels for ceremonies.
"It's like a gift from God," exclaimed Abdul Emir Majid, 52, whose nephew was getting married on a recent day.
Of course, it is that selfsame God who is seen by others as demanding a return to a more austere and furtive way of life. While roundly routed by Iraqi Security Forces, the Shiite militias circle ominously against the day when the government relaxes its guardianship of Basra's sputtering reawakening. Not all are optimistic that they will not succeed in squelching the hopes of its people for a safe, prosperous, and free life.
Such a reversal would be a tremendous loss for the future of Iraq. The potential of Basra's port and the thriving commerce and cultural exchange which stand to burst forth from this long-neglected and bitterly beleaguered city would very substantially contribute to the improvement of all Iraqis' lives. Such port cities can tend to become the nuclei of cosmopolitan attitudes and of educated, well-heeled middle classes who will brook no militant or theocratic threats to their affluence and freedom. The huge infusions of capital which would flow from the restoration of the port of Basra as the mercantile Mecca it has been in the past would facilitate the growth and solidification of such a class. They would, in turn, constitute a formidable voting bloc whose interests the Iraqi government would be ill-advised to spurn.
Once known as the "Venice of the East," Basra is traditionally depicted as the point of departure of Sinbad the Sailor. Like that legendary figure, the long-dormant spirit of adventure and discovery which may be poised to re-infuse the souls of Iraq can form the basis for whole new cycles of tales to animate the imaginations of Arabs whose dreams have been dark and narrow for far too long.
Keep an eye on Basra; its fortunes in days to come will describe the tides whose rise (or fall) will underlie the keel of the Iraqi ship of state. Much is riding on that voyage, and may fair winds and following seas await it.