, BASRA, Jan 29 – Freed from the Shiite death squads which prowled its streets just months ago, voters in southern Iraq\’s oil-rich Basra province are pinning their hopes on elections to revive the ruined economy.
Saturday\’s local vote in 14 of Iraq\’s 18 provinces is a key test of security and the fledgling democratic process in a nation trying to emerge from the devastation wrought by the 2003 US-led invasion and near civil war that followed.
Nowhere are the stakes higher than in Basra, Iraq\’s third largest city and surrounding province whose oil wealth is not only the engine of the nation\’s economy but a key Shiite battleground for shaping the political future.
The region is beset with rivalries among three main Shiite factions – the former rebel Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, the smaller but influential Fadhila party, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki\’s State of Law coalition.
Two party lists backed by the radical but popular cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are also competing, while secular parties have likewise joined the race.
Basra is awash with campaign posters and banners of more than 1,000 candidates – 300 of them women – bidding for 35 of the 440 seats being contested nationwide.
But the political enthusiasm contrasts sharply with the stench of sewer-filled canals and the vast tracts of rotting rubbish piled waist high along the potholed and dust-filled roads of vast Shiite slums.
Infrastructure is woeful, with few of the city\’s one million residents enjoying clean water, while power cuts are constant and unemployment hovers around 40 percent.
"We need electricity, water and jobs," said Sajad Ali, 25, echoing a call repeated to AFP by so many residents that it could be the city\’s unhappy mantra.
The importance of Basra\’s oil wealth has drawn senior politicians, including Maliki, to stump for their parties in a bid to sway undecided voters.
The frenetic run-up would have been unthinkable a year ago, when the southern city was overrun by gun-toting Shiite militiamen, many of them loyal to the radical anti-US cleric Sadr, with others under the influence of Iran.
The religious extremists imposed tough Islamic laws, punishing and killing anyone who opposed them and creating a culture of fear that stalled badly needed reconstruction projects.
In March last year, Maliki ordered his security forces to take on the militiamen, who were eventually subdued after weeks of fighting that left hundreds dead.
The move has raised his stature in the province, undercutting Sadr\’s popularity.
"Maliki\’s party could be the winner and has been popular because many are happy with security," a British diplomat in Basra said. "The Sadr trend has been marginalised."
The poll also promises to be a key security test as British troops prepare to withdraw by the end of July after more than six years of occupation.
"Basra is now stable but not really fully resilient," British military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Dickie Winchester told AFP at Basra airport where 4,000 British soldiers help train the Iraqi army.
"The elections will be a measure of effectiveness. This will prove if the Iraqi police and army are in command. We think they are."
To maintain hard-won stability, Basra now needs more funding, said Mohadhel Khanger, chairman of the economic development committee of Basra\’s provincial council.
"We need greater policy authority to flow from Baghdad to Basra and we need greater financial support," said Khanger, who estimates a budget of two billion dollars a year is needed for the next five years.
Politicians complain that Basra\’s annual $300 million budget is not enough to rebuild a city ruined by the US-led war, as well as neglect in the wake of the 1980s war with Iran and the Gulf war over Kuwait in 1991.
Basra is considered the country\’s financial hub, due to crude oil production and its harbour. More than 70 percent of Iraq\’s oil is produced in the region and its port is used for 80 percent of crude exports.
Desperate residents accuse council members of corruption, but politicians blame Baghdad\’s centralist policy which they say gives them no control over oil revenues.
"Basra is exporting oil to Baghdad and we are not getting any money back," said Jamal Abdul Zarah, a Shiite chief from Fadhila.
Some politicians have even called for a referendum to allow the region to gain an autonomous status similar to the three Kurdish provinces in northern Iraq, but the bid has failed.