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Filed February 017, 2003 By Jeremy Scahill

BASRA—There arenęt many places in the world where it could happen. This southern Iraqi port city happens to be one where it does almost every day. Air raid sirens blare out in a heavily populated area and no one flinches. Itęs not that the sirens arenęt followed by bombs and it is not that these bombs donęt kill people. Itęs one of those tragic side effects of living more than 20 years with the violence of war.

As the sun sets in the distance, people file past the massive Shiite Al Mussawi Grand Mosque in the center of the city. The sirens blare out for the fourth time that day. Children continue playing with sticks in the streets, people continue to sip tea in front of wooden carts; groups of men carry on intensely with their domino matches.

For hundreds of years, Basra was called the Venice of the East. Sinbad the Sailor's adventures were launched from its shores. The city is connected by a web of footbridges and canals that empty into the Shatt Al Arab, a focal point of the Arab sea trade for more than 1300 years. It endured both Ottoman and British occupation and, more recently, 20 years of war. Photo by Thorne Anderson.
"Donęt worry,” says one of the guards in front of the mosque to foreign visitors. "That oneęs the all-clear.” He seems amused at the site of foreigners staring at the sky looking for warplanes while Iraqis continue on with their activities in the background.

The siren indicates that US or British warplanes have just exited Iraqi airspace, where they regularly penetrate under the guise of so-called no-fly zones. These zones, which have no mandate from the United Nations, have become a source of recent tension between Iraq and UN weapons inspectors.

For weeks, Chief Inspector Hans Blix has asked the Iraqis to give what he called "the green light” to begin over flights of Iraq with American U2 spy planes and other surveillance aircraft as part of the weapons inspection process. Iraq said it first wanted an end to the invasion of its airspace by the warplanes, saying it could not guarantee the safety or security of the surveillance planes. Indeed, US planes bombed southern Iraq the day Blix and Chief Nuclear Inspector Mohammed El Baradei arrived in Baghdad earlier this month. Iraq says the attack killed 2 civilians and wounded 9 others.

Amir Al Saadi, the special adviser to President Saddam Hussein, said that Iraq was concerned that Washington would seek to "create another Gulf of Tonkin” in order to spark a war. Iraq said it was concerned that the US would possibly shoot down one of the U2 planes, which would technically be flying under the UN flag, and then blame it on Iraq. Baghdad also maintained that it would continue to fire on warplanes that invaded its airspace and was concerned that Iraqi forces would accidentally fire on a U2 plane, thus giving the US an opportunity to declare war.

Hans Blix addresses reporters in Baghdad, February 1o, 2003. Photo by Thorne Anderson.
When Blix was in Baghdad recently, questioned him on the ongoing bombing in the no-fly zones:

IRAQJOURNAL: Hans von Sponeck, the former head of the UN Humanitarian program in Baghdad, has said there is no UN mandate whatsoever for the no-fly zones and calls them illegal. As part of the negotiations will you call for an end to the bombings of US and British warplanes?

BLIX: No. We have nothing to do with the no-fly zones. There is nothing in the resolutions that are setting up my organization to discuss the no-fly zones. The legal views are divided on that so we do not enter that. The resolution does not make any reference to that, although it was well known that they existed at the time so we think we are entitled to do what the resolutions say.

IRAQJOURNAL: Will you ask for the US and Britain to stop bombing Iraq in the no-fly zones?

BLIX: No. We have nothing to do with the no-fly zones.

IRAQJOURNAL: George W Bush, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld have said that inspections are not the issue, that Saddam Husseinęs regime is the issue. Do these kinds of statements undermine your ability to complete your work here?

BLIX: I donęt think so. I think results will prove-if we have results it will count. And if we donęt, well, that will undercut us.

Last week, in what Iraq described as a clear sign of its willingness to "go the extra mile” in cooperating with the inspections process, Baghdad announced it would allow the over flights of the spy planes, even though the US and Britain continue to bomb Iraq. The US promptly dismissed Iraqęs move.

So from Iraqęs perspective, it is taking a very risky political gamble by permitting the spy planes to fly amid what has become the longest sustained bombing campaign since the Vietnam War. And though many people in Basra are used to the rumble of warplanes and the blare of sirens, they terrorize others, particularly children.

"Their faces become yellow,” says a primary school teacher in Basra, describing her students hearing the planes. "To get them to forget the airplanes, I sing with them in a loud voice to cover up the sound.”

Basraęs residents have lived on the frontlines of war for more than 2 decades. They live now under the constant threat of US bombs and they know that they live in a future frontline of the coming war. As the US continues to bomb southern Iraq, the hospitals in the area are bracing for the worst.

"If there is a war, there will be a disaster for the people because we have not much equipment for dealing with casualties,” says Dr. Mohammed Nasir, the director of the largest pediatric hospital in Basra. "Because of the sanctions, there is shortages for everything from IV solutions to blood bags, even food. We have the experience to deal with it but we do not have the equipment.”

Jeremy Scahill is an independent journalist, who reports for the nationally syndicated Radio and TV show Democracy Now! He is currently based in Baghdad, Iraq, where he and filmmaker Jacquie Soohen are coordinating, the only website providing regular independent reporting from the ground in Baghdad.

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