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Basra residents hope for return of city's golden era

BASRA, Iraq—All around retired teacher Mowaffuk Abdul Ghani last week were signs that war-shattered Basra was returning to its proud, old self. The markets were bustling, the traders were hawking, and the men were sipping brown tea at a corner stand.

But ask Abdul Ghani about the Basra he would like to see again and he'll take you back, way back, to a time when casinos dotted the Corniche, an avenue along the Shatt al Arab river, and when theaters and artists thrived in the city.

When Saddam Hussein was not around.

"It was the best time for Basra," said Abdul Ghani, 66, who was chatting with an old friend in front of a shuttered kebab shop. A crowd soon gathered.

Basra's golden era began in 1960 and ended in 1980, when Saddam took over the Corniche and other neighborhoods at the start of the Iran-Iraq war, residents said. He tore down the casinos and nightclubs, replacing them with security buildings and a palace along the majestic Shatt al Arab, they said.

Along with tortures and executions, add this to the crimes of Saddam: destroying the soul of Iraq's second largest city.

"He took the best sites away from us and took them for himself," said Abdul Ghani.

As he spoke, Faleh Hassan, 50, a taxi driver, broke in: "In that time everything was allowed. But after 1980, there was no freedom. There were a lot of checkpoints, security posts and security people doing whatever they want."

On Friday, the old Basra rose up again along Al Jazzaer Street _12 days after the British swept into the city and thousands of people embarked on looting sprees. Parents walked with their children. Friends chatted. Women in black Islamic garments smiled.

At the Canary Restaurant, a brick barrier hastily erected to stop looters was being taken down. Customers were eating kofta kebab pocket sandwiches and sipping cold soft drinks. And just off the street, children licked cones inside a re-opened ice cream parlor.

Elsewhere, teenagers played soccer. Two gas stations had opened up again and at one of them a long line formed as people pushed up cars with empty tanks.

But there are some signs of a still-insecure city. Sporadic machine gun fire rattles some neighborhoods virtually every night. Heavily armed British soldiers patrol the streets. Residents whisper that Saddam's Baath party officials are itching to create chaos.

Still, many hope Basra can regain the glory of its golden era.

"It was heaven back then. That's what our father and grandfather told us," said Yosef Al Khalday, 36, whose family owns the Canary Restaurant.

Abdul Ghani agrees. In that era, Iraqis could buy the latest U.S. goods, even cars. On the streets, men wore crisp suits and ties and women strolled in nice dresses, recalled Abdul Ghani.

Until the first Gulf War, even Kuwaitis would drive across the border and have fun in the local bars of Basra.

Abdul Ghani remembers taking his family to a local amusement park, where they ate and listened to music. Twice they flew to London directly from Basra. The city was a trading hub, exporting dates to China, India and other countries. And it was dotted with hundreds of palm trees, so many that "even the palm trees in California came from Basra," said Abdul Ghani.

Asked if he believes that Basra's golden age can return, he replied: "It will come back only if a good government arrives."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BASRA