Khor al Zubair, Iraq — Iraq's principal ports, which were plagued by corruption, theft and insecurity while under the control of militia-linked port guards, have registered a dramatic increase in trade, revenues and productivity since the government took control following its March military offensive, according port officials and a British military spokesman.
The sign on the door at the main port offices Kahor al Zubair about 25 miles southwest of the southern city of Basra is a sign of the new times: "By orders of Mr. Prime Minister...it is absolutely prohibited to take any wages, bribes or collect any money inside the port."
It would be a tall order in any port, but in Basra, where government, commodities producers, and private companies import and export products, including food rations, through its three Gulf ports, it signals determination to halt the extortion and looting associated with the so-called Facility Protection Forces, government guards who were linked to militias.
Basra is the center of Iraq's wealth, home to its major ports and 90 percent of the nation's oil. Now the ports are "completely" under government control, said Maj. Tom Holloway the British military spokesman in Basra.
Import and exports have doubled since the military operation started in late March and security for the port was transferred to Iraqi Army control, Holloway said.
"The productivity within the ports just by stopping these dirty practices increased by 100 percent," Holloway said.
The military operation launched in late March by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki involved thousands of Iraqi Security Forces, embedded U.S. and British units and coalition airpower in a plan that was seen widely seen as ill-planned and ill-timed as it unfolded.
But since the flood of some 33,000 Iraqi Security Forces descended upon Basra, a cautious optimism has emerged in the city, once dominated by Shiite militias. Headquarters of groups such as the Vengeance of God, an Iranian-linked group and the Mahdi Army, loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr have been overrun by Iraqi Security Forces.
The groups were feared in Basra as deadly morality police, enforcing a strict form of Islam. They killed on a whim and took what they wanted, residents said.
The change at the ports has been dramatic.
At Um Qasr, revenue has doubled, said Talib Abdullah Bayesh, the port director. Prior to Maliki's operation, dubbed "The Charge of Knights," Bayesh said he felt his hands were tied. Political parties interfered in port operations and violated the security of the port, he said, and stealing was rampant.
"Now the director can move freely and professionally without the interference of anyone," he said. "In addition the situation is now very different because no one, no political party interferes in the work of the port."
At the entrance to another of the Basra ports, Khor al Zubair, a old sign still hangs from an overpass declaring: "Death to America the Enemy of the People." Guards at Khor al Zubair were dismissed because of their known loyalties to the Mahdi Army, said Kadhim Fenjan, the director of port operations at Khor al Zubair.
The guards forced truck drivers to pay an illegal tax as they entered and exited the port daily, and may have used the funds collected to support militant activities in the city, Fenjan said. Similar taxes were collected at the other ports.
"We changed the system, we had problems before," said Kadhim Fenjan, the director of port operations who was put in the position temporarily to replace his corrupt predecessor. "We have plenty of security in our port now."
Fenjan was brought in just three months ago and has been weeding out corruption, he said. Just Thursday he ordered nearly 3,000 bags of rice meant for food rations to be pulled from distribution. The rice was rotten and had been substituted for good rice when employees pretended to check the quality of the shipment, Fenjan said.
Since Saddam Hussein's regime fell Iraqis have complained that the food rations meant to sustain their family were often rotten and unusable if they ever reached their destinations.
The military's takeover also has meant greater security for port employees.
In the Khour Zubair harbor on a recent afternoon, men worked to unload ships unconcerned about the time. Since the operation began in late March to battle Shiite militias who'd imposed strict Islamic law and ruled the street with weapons, Basrawis feel more comfortable roaming the streets.
Employees here no longer hurry to leave by 6 p.m. so they won't get caught on the dark roads when kidnappings and killings were more likely.
"We're free to go and come now," said Mohammed Abdou, 23, a foreman at the Khour Zubair port. "In the past the drivers had to pay just to enter to do their job. Now we can leave late at night without the worry of kidnappings or killings."