[Marxism] Marooned on Sea of Iraqi Oil, but Unable to Tap Its Wealth

Bonnie Weinstein giobon at comcast.net
Sat Nov 7 10:59:36 MST 2009


Marooned on Sea of Iraqi Oil, but Unable to Tap Its Wealth
“The area around Basra, Iraq’s second largest city and main port,  
accounts for as much as 80 percent of the country’s oil production.  
It has emerged as Iraq’s best hope for stability and prosperity as it  
prepares to sell off its top undeveloped oil fields to foreign  
companies at an auction next month.”
By TIMOTHY WILLIAMS
November 8, 2009
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/08/world/middleeast/08basra.html? 
ref=world

BASRA, Iraq — The orange glow of the giant natural gas flares in the  
oil fields around Basra represents this bustling city’s wealth of  
natural resources. But for the impoverished people who live near  
them, the flames only serve as a reminder of their inability to share  
in the riches that lie beneath their feet.

The area around Basra, Iraq’s second largest city and main port,  
accounts for as much as 80 percent of the country’s oil production.  
It has emerged as Iraq’s best hope for stability and prosperity as it  
prepares to sell off its top undeveloped oil fields to foreign  
companies at an auction next month. Of the five largest fields that  
will be bid on, four are in or around Basra.

Despite the riches trapped below its oil fields, though, this city of  
three million is among the poorest places in a poor country.

People in neighborhoods within a few miles of fields with so much oil  
that it floats atop the surface in huge black pools live amid mud and  
feces. Carts pulled by overworked donkeys compete with cars for space  
on streets. Childhood cancer rates are the highest in the country.  
The city’s salty tap water makes people ill. And there is more  
garbage on the streets than municipal collectors can make a dent in.

The hundreds of thousands who live in the villages around the fields  
all dream of finding oil work, but that is unlikely. Those who apply  
are almost always told they lack the education or experience for oil  
work. But they believe that their only real deficiency is a lack of  
connections and money for bribes.

“People sit here in the evenings and they watch the flames and wonder  
how rich they would be if they had only one hour of those oil  
exports,” said Naeem al-Moussuawi, who lives in one of Basra’s poorer  
villages.

Last month, after Iraq’s Oil Ministry announced that it planned to  
hire workers for its Basra-based South Oil Company, thousands of  
people waited in line for applications — some for days. Among them  
were men in tattered clothing with bare, muddy feet. When the line  
got unruly, the police were called. Some applicants were beaten. More  
than 27,000 applications were filled out for 1,600 jobs — most of  
which require a college education or experience, and most Basrans  
have neither.

In the village of Asdika, oil pipelines run along the perimeter, and  
several thousand people live in ramshackle houses of gray cinder  
blocks and plastic sheeting for roofs.

There is no garbage collection, and household trash is thrown outside  
to rot in the sun. There is no sewer system, so wastewater from  
houses is dumped outside, attracting thousands of flies to the lakes  
of raw sewage that have formed outside most homes. Almost everyone is  
unemployed.

The village is on government property — an oil field — and its  
existence is illegal. Residents say the police show up occasionally  
and threaten to bulldoze the houses.

Hussein Flaeh, 29, an unemployed father of two, has lived in Asdika  
since 2003. Fifteen members of his family live in a concrete-block  
house with three small rooms. One recent morning, Mr. Flaeh’s  
youngest child, Essam, born two weeks ago, was placed outside to get  
some fresh air. The baby’s face was almost immediately covered by  
hungry flies.

Asked whether he had ever applied for a job at the oil refinery, Mr.  
Flaeh appeared perplexed and did not answer. Pressed, his gentle face  
turned hard.

“You can’t even reach it,” he said. “Don’t even talk about it.”

Government officials in Basra have called for a fee of $1 to be  
placed on each barrel of oil produced in the province that would then  
be dedicated to local uses instead of going to the central  
government. But even if Basra suddenly became awash in oil money, the  
construction of new housing, offices and even farmland would be  
prohibited because almost everything is situated atop untapped  
reserves of crude oil.

“Ninety percent of Basra is an oil field,” said Ahmed al-Sulati, a  
member of the local provincial council. “We can’t build anything  
here. We need to have more housing in some neighborhoods, but we  
can’t because we are surrounded by oil.”

In the meantime, Mr. Sulati said, “We are getting sick from breathing  
gas, and the streets are getting destroyed by the oil trucks.”

During a recent speech, Ali Ghalib Baban, Iraq’s minister of  
planning, said Basra was on the cusp of being “one of the world’s  
most important economic centers.”

But in the village of Shuiba, so close to the city’s refinery and  
major fields that the air is heavy with the smell of petroleum,  
farmers have stopped growing tomatoes and now rent their fields to  
truck drivers who park their tankers there for about 80 cents a night.

It is the village’s single school, however, that is the source of  
most of Shuiba’s concerns. Some classes have more than 55 students  
packed inside, and boys and girls must be taught together, which has  
led some parents to keep their daughters at home. There are no  
bathrooms, and some classrooms have no electricity. The school  
grounds are littered with piles of garbage.

Oil workers live on the opposite side of the village.

In the poorer half of Shuiba, the workers are regarded with envy and  
loathing. Not a single resident from the poor side has been hired for  
an oil job.

“Everyone would like to work for the oil company,” Mr. Moussuawi  
said. “We know we are poor and many of us are not well educated. The  
problem is they see the trucks full of oil and they wonder where the  
money is going.”

But even in Shuiba’s better-off half, adjacent to Basra’s sprawling  
refinery, residents say they have unmet needs. The housing is neat,  
there is no trash and the streets are paved, but there is crowding  
and rising unemployment even among the college-educated sons and  
daughters of oil company managers, they say.

“You need to know somebody or pay a bribe to work there,” said Najim  
Khadim, 26, the son of Shuiba’s unofficial mayor, Mohammed Khadim,  
who has worked for 38 years at the refinery, where he is a supervisor.

The son, who has a college degree in chemistry, said not even his  
father had been able to help with a job. The going rate for bribes  
for a job, he said, is $2,000 to $5,000, which he said he refused to  
pay.

A visitor is brought a glass of tap water. It tastes as salty as the  
water in the rest of town.

Duraid Adnan and Iraqi employees of The New York Times contributed  
reporting.



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