BASRA, IRAQ — Garbage lies in burning curbside piles outside the governor’s
office, and streets are flooded with sewage. The more than 1 million residents
of the country’s second-largest city fan out in a textbook example of urban sprawl,
into the barren desert and the Rumaila oil fields, where refineries light the
sky 24 hours a day.
The city seems much as it did when Iraq was invaded more than two years ago. Local residents look to the government to provide better services, but a mixture of alleged corruption and complaints of a lack of support from the central government have left efforts largely stymied. Near the Marbed Hotel, the most expensive in the city and the one where most of the parachute-in–parachute-out foreign press corps stays, the garbage also lies piled up. Walk a block from the hotel through an unpaved alley, and you’re at the exchange shop where Steven Vincent, a 49-year-old freelance investigative journalist from New York, was abducted before being killed. His 31-year-old colleague Nouriya Itais Wadi, also known as Nour Al-Khal and often referred to as “Leyla” in Vincent’s writings, was left for dead next to him, shot four times. She has been moved to a hospital in Kuwait and is expected to survive.
Vincent had been living in the Marbed for three months, researching for a book on the city and rarely leaving the hotel except to work. At a time when freelancers, especially, are few and far between in Iraq, he had spent an almost insane amount of time in the same place. For the Christian Science Monitor he had been writing critically of the local government and its ties to Islamic militias that offered more corruption; for Harper’s magazine he did a piece on the iconography of Shiite religious posters. His final piece was an op-ed published July 31 in The New York Times on the sorry state of the Basran police. Whether or not this piece and the others were his undoing, they provide the background against which he died, a city seemingly calm in comparison to other parts of the country, liberated by foreign troops from a repressive dictatorship only to be run by criminals, many operating under the guise of political Islam.
A supporter of the invasion, Vincent had come to Basra, and Iraq, because he wanted to see firsthand what the invasion of Iraq had wrought.
“Steve always wanted to be a writer,” said Lisa Ramaci, who was married to Vincent for 13 years. “When I met him, he was a cab driver, then he was an art journalist for 10 years, but wanted to get into political journalism. Our place had a great view of the World Trade Center, and September 11 set him on this course.”
Parts of Manhattan then might not have looked too much different from Basra now. The destroyed World Trade Center was not dissimilar to the bombed intelligence buildings in Basra’s city center, some parts of the foundation still standing upright but holding aloft nothing but vacant space.
In 2004, Vincent traveled to Iraq and wrote a book called In the Red Zone. He was present in Najaf during the U.S. siege of that city to remove Muqtada Al-Sadr’s militia from a holy shrine. Ramaci last spoke to Vincent three days before he was killed, and said he told her he was planning to leave Basra in two weeks because of increasing concerns for his and Al-Khal’s safety.
“He was getting into some bad stuff, and he said he was starting to get a lot of phone calls from numbers he didn’t recognize and when he picked up, there wouldn’t be anyone there. About a month ago, he said a man came up behind Nour on the street and said, ‘Why are you working with that American journalist who’s asking all the questions?’ ” Ramaci said, adding that in their last conversation, he hadn’t mentioned any specific threats.
The posts on Vincent’s blog, addressed to Ramaci, provide a nuanced, clever, often funny, but above all humane, account of his travels and thoughts. He was constantly having to rethink his preconceptions and was often pained and appalled by what he saw. He was particularly sensitive to women’s rights, collecting firsthand anecdotes while working with Al-Khal and other female colleagues.
It never ceases to astonish me, the ways in which Iraqi men subjugate
and control their women with their obsessions on “reputation,” “honor” and that
all-purpose cudgel, “proper Muslim behavior.”
The point is, polygamy and “temporary marriages” are legal here, meaning that any single woman is subject to the advances of any man, married or not. Even if they aren’t bold enough to confess their ardor in conversation, the hope, or fantasy, burns in their minds and fills the eyes with a queasy leer. Women back home who complain about the “male gaze” have no idea how bad it can get.
“The person he seemed to fear the most was Muqtada Al-Sadr,” Ramaci said. “He
was most frightened when he interviewed people at his office.”
Perhaps the leer he is referring to is Sadr’s, looking out from countless signs in the city. Maybe it is Khomeini’s. Vincent foresaw an old fascism for the new Iraq.
Vincent and Al-Khal were abducted on August 2. An Iraqi journalist who spoke with witnesses reported that the killers were driving an unmarked police car. A member of the Basra police confirmed this to another journalist, but the official statement from the police denies this.
“There are two stories in Basra right now,” said an Iraqi correspondent in the city who asked that his name not be used. “One is that Steven was killed because there was a relationship between him and Nour. The other is that he was killed for writing an article accusing the Sadr office of kidnappings.”
Either could have been sufficient to sentence him to death. The day before Vincent’s murder, an Iraqi woman working for an international NGO was shot on her way to work. Journalists have been attacked, threatened and harassed for writing the wrong things.
It would be sufficiently accurate to state the cause of death as “Basra,” another unsolved homicide in a place where, as Vincent himself reported, the police are believed to be carrying out a number of extrajudicial killings.
On a late-night ride through the city with a 25-year-old Iraqi man who
has worked as a translator for the British military for more than a year, the
translator points out the locations where different acts of violence have occurred.
He is careful to keep the techno music in his van low.
“My friend had a stereo shop there,” he says. “He was playing the music too loud. First they warned him, and the second time they came and broke his windows and shot him. Then they put up a bunch of posters [of Sadr] in his windows. Then he sold his shop; he didn’t like it anymore.”
We come to an intersection.
“Three weeks ago I was stopped here by the police. A policeman who said he was with the Sadr movement said he was going to shoot me, and then some British troops nearby came over. They were going to shoot me.”
It was the second time he had been threatened by a police officer who identified him as a member of the Sadr movement, the translator said.
Sayyed Kanaan Mousawi, a Sadr representative in Basra, says the group has been given strict orders by its leader not to engage in violence unless attacked by occupying troops. But the movement focuses on recruitment of 18- to 22-year-olds, and is popular in Shiite slums across the country. In some cases, it is hard to rein in the cleric’s young followers, as in April, when Sadrists beat up students at Basra University who were playing music and holding a coed picnic, after which the cleric closed his office in Basra.
Mousawi has been at work preparing the Sadr office for its reopening. Mousawi
described the incident at the university as a failure within the organization
and said that the new office will not be under the control of a single person,
and that technocrats will be invited to help run the office. But in a place where
Islamic law is being legitimated by the political process if it is not being carried
out by vigilants, few who remember Basra two decades ago, when it was a liberal
city where men from more conservative neighboring countries would cross the border
to visit a bar or club, many remain unconvinced by such promises of restraint.
Ali is a musician, and since the invasion, public performances of music have been stopped for fear of retribution from militias, and some musicians have been murdered. “In the past, we used to do our job normally, the government did not pay attention to us,” Ali says. “But the current government does not care enough to protect us, because the Islamists think that music affects Islam negatively.
“If we let them do this, it will be just like the time of Saddam.”
A Basra police spokesman, asked whether Vincent’s reporting was accurate, is unsurprisingly cagey: “I can’t give you an answer. You will print my name.”
David Enders is a freelance writer and has written for The Nation and Mother
Jones. His first book, Baghdad Bulletin, is available from University
of Michigan Press.