Middle East

Iraq polls: Parties vie for spoils of Basra

Image caption Political posters compete for attention on the streets of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city

You can hardly turn a corner in Basra without seeing a campaign poster for the upcoming parliamentary elections in Iraq.

Colourful banners with candidates' pictures and their party slogans are all over the city. But most of them hang beside dirty roads or the city's once elegant waterways, now polluted with sewage.

Everywhere I went in Basra people complained, among other things, about bad public services, unemployment and pollution.

However, almost everyone I talked to said they would vote.

A lady in the busy Tannumah market told me that she was unhappy with the performance of politicians - not only in Basra, but in Iraq as a whole.

She begged them to work for the benefit of ordinary people. "I am sick of what is happening but I am not going to boycott the election. I know that there is not much hope and that all parties look alike, but I am ready to hope. I am going to vote."

Oil wealth

The bad public services in the city stand in stark contrast to the province's oil wealth.

Image caption The key issues in Basra are public services and unemployment

Rumaila oil field, west of Basra city, is the world's second-largest. It produces 1.4m barrels a day, and provides 40% of Iraq's oil revenues.

It is now run by BP in partnership with the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation and the Iraqi government.

Under the shadow of a large oil rig, Michael Townshend, President of BP Iraq, told me that they were trying to help the local community.

"Part of our role is how can we make Basra better? We do that not only through raising production, but the employment we have.

"We have 6,000 local staff, we have some 15,000 Iraqis working on the field and a lot of major contracts that total nearly a billion dollars".

After the fall of Saddam Hussein, politicians could not agree on how to distribute the country's oil wealth among Iraq's different regions and communities.

Image caption Iraq has the fourth-largest proven oil reserves in the world

But in 2009, the Iraqi government invited foreign investment in its oil industry. Most of the revenue goes directly to the central government in Baghdad, giving it a greater degree of power and control.

And that is just one reason why the race for the position of prime minister is significant.

More of the same?

The incumbent PM, Nouri Maliki, who comes from the majority Shia community, has been ruling the country since 2006.

The main talking-point of these elections is his bid for a third term in office.

Leading figures in his State of Law party have been campaigning passionately in Basra.

Transport minister Hadi al-Amiri held a noisy, well-attended rally in a community hall.

He addressed the crowd, urging them to vote.

Mr Amiri, who for years was the commander of the Badr Corps, which in the 1980s and 1990s launched attacks on Saddam Hussein's army from its base in Iran, seemed confident of victory.

Image caption Figures from the ruling party like transport minster Hadi al-Amiri have been campaigning hard in Basra

After a long day meeting voters, and just before he boarded a flight back to Baghdad, he predicted that Mr Maliki would secure a larger majority this time around.

"I believe that the State of Law party will win a landslide. We have huge support in Baghdad and other provinces. In Basra we believe that we will get 75% of the vote. But we don't intend to form a Shia government, rather a government based on a parliamentary majority, with representation from the Sunni and Kurdish communities."

A third term for Mr Maliki is not only opposed by Sunni and Kurdish parties, who accuse him of authoritarian tendencies, but also by rival Shia parties who believe that one of their leaders could do a better job.

Political rivalry

After Mr Maliki's crackdown on the Shia militias that dominated Basra in 2008, he enjoyed widespread popularity in the city and across the country. But some of that approval faded as people became increasingly dissatisfied with his government's performance.

In last year's provincial elections, the prime minister's party won the most seats on Basra's local council and was only three seats short of being able to secure the role of governor of the province for one of its members.

But all other Shia parties, with the support of smaller Sunni and secular factions, formed a coalition and managed to appoint their own candidate, Dr Majid al-Nasrawi, as governor.

Image caption Dr Majid al-Nasrawi was appointed governor after co-operation between Sunni, Shia and secular parties

In his office on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab river I asked him if he thinks that a similar deal on the national level might put an end to Mr Maliki's ambitions for a third term in office.

He said: "We don't have a problem with any individual, we have a problem with the policies of the government. We want a real partnership. Iraq will not be built without partnership. We don't believe in the policy of marginalisation and confrontation which Mr Maliki is undertaking."

After elections in 2010 it took seven months of negotiations before a government was finally formed. Regional powers were also involved in the process. Iran exerted influence through the Shia parties, while Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey had the ear of the Sunni communities.

As no party is expected to win an outright majority in the forthcoming elections, the people of Iraq may be in for a long wait to find out who their next leaders will be.

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