Wednesday, July 02, 2003
Basra under the Brits feels like another country. But you must learn to bargain when it comes to blood money
Wednesday July 2, 2003
Going down south to Basra is like going into another country. You are literally going through another time zone. The war was in full throttle when daylight-savings time should have come into place, but since there was no government to organise it some governorates just didn't change their time. So when you go through Samawah and Nasiriyah you enter a different time zone, and then come back into +4 GMT zone when you get to Basra.
The other reason why it feels like you are going into another country is the British presence in the south. The first thing you notice is that everything is smaller, their vehicles are tiny compared with what the Americans are using in Baghdad. They have these cute little tanks which go really fast, our driver called them "baby-tanks". As we were entering Basra we encountered a small convoy, just a couple of vehicles escorted by the British equivalent of a Humvee. On the top sat a soldier with a BIG gun.
In Baghdad that gun would be pointing either at the car right behind the military vehicle or at the sidewalk, scanning the buildings. But the British guy wasn't pointing at anything, he was just looking around with the gun turned in, at an angle that would have shot him in the foot if it had gone off by accident. You appreciate this only after you have been driving behind an American Humvee and praying that your car doesn't backfire or make strange noises, because the US soldier has that gun pointing right at you.
The next thing was getting into Basra and being stopped at the checkpoint. One soldier in a floppy hat waving his hand for you to slow down, and when you lower the window he actually greets you with "al salamu alaikum". That got him some appreciative giggles - imagine that happening in Baghdad. Everybody here in Basra is so much more laid back, even after the incidents in al-Majar al-Kabir. To their credit they didn't decide to punish the whole population and clamp down on them.
I did go to al-Majar yesterday. I went to the police station and got to meet some of the people who are calling themselves "the emergency brigade". They are a creepy lot. There is so much that is not being told and so many glances going back and forth between them, you just know that they are hiding something bad.
How the British ever decided to let this "brigade" handle the security in that governorate is a mystery to me. How could they make a deal with a self-appointed "supervising committee" in Amarah which then decides to form an armed "emergency brigade"?
I don't think the idea in itself is wrong. Local problems need local solutions, and if the Iraqis can govern themselves, and by all means we should, then let us do it. But the "coalition forces" also have to know who they are getting in bed with.
The flip side of this decision is the way the British have dealt with the issue of Iraqis killed by the British forces by mistake. The south is very tribal. Killing someone, especially if he came from a powerful tribe, might start a chain of revenge killings unless the two tribes were to agree on some sort of compensation, ie blood money. So while we are sitting with some people in Amarah we hear the following story.
During a wedding celebration, two young men fire celebratory shots into the air. A British patrol happens to be near by, they think they have a couple of Fedayeen shooting at them. Bang bang, the Iraqis are dead.
The British take the bodies to the hospital, and after conducting an investigation they find out they were not Fedayeen, a mistake has been made. So the next day two British officers, two Iraqi lawyers and a translator go to the hospital and ask how the locals deal with this sort of thing. The concept of "Fasil" or blood money is explained to them. A couple of days later the word spreads that the British have paid 15 million Iraqi dinars in blood money to the families of the two Iraqi men. Further bloodshed was stopped. Perfect.
I am not discussing the moral correctness of blood money. This is the way things are done here and if this money will stop any sort of revenge killings then it is worth it. No, I only have one comment: being foreigners, they paid too much. Habibi, everything is bargainable here, and paying 15 million in blood money will ruin the blood money market - it is way too much. You should improve your tribal connections and get someone to bargain for you.