Route six, Iraq – AKA “MSR Topeka” (Main Supply Route Topeka), as named by the UK coalition forces, is a long, worn, and neglected jugular through the heart of Shia Iraq, running roughly south and east from Baghdad to Basrah – the second city. It winds its way through 260 miles in a slow dance, mirroring the route of the Tigris River, and sometimes too close for comfort to the political and physical border of the foothills of Iran.
I’m in Qurnah, the supposed site of the Garden of Eden, a smallish market town, nestling at the great confluence of the two mighty rivers that make up the boundaries of ancient Mesopotamia – the Tigris from the north and the Euphrates from the west. Here they form the Shatt-al-Arab, which sleepily washes down through the balmy port of Basrah, over the sunken wrecks of warships, and eventually eddies into the Persian Gulf.
Route six runs through the legendary marshlands of the Madan, the lost tribes of Iraq -The tragic “Marsh Arabs”. Saddam Hussein’s legacy for most people in Iraq is the ongoing war of attrition, between Iraqi and westerner and foreign fighter; between Shia and Sunni; His legacy here, in places like Qurnah, is the absolute destruction of a whole system of living.
When he drained the marshes because he could not tame the Madan; ancient tribes such as The Fartus, The Feraigat and The Shagambeh, Saddam turned a once bustling and fertile ecosystem into a dustbowl. And when he fought a futile war against Iran for eight years, the area suffered even more. Today, the ‘Marshland’ that used to stretch for ninety miles, from Amarah down to just north of Basrah, is a barren desert for the most part. Hulks of tanks and other military hardware lie rusting in the disintegrating wadis and dry canal beds.
Why am I here? Well, parallel to route six and accessed by it, is a brand spanking new 400kV power line that carries electricity from the Al Hartha power station in Basrah, north 260 miles to where it’s desperately needed in Baghdad.
I first came to Iraq back in October 2003 as part of the security element for TFRIE (Task Force Restore Iraq Electricity). This is an organisation of multinational companies that make up part of the infrastructure re-building programme, initially under the control of the, now defunct, CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority). TFRIE along with other entities, such as TFRIO (Oil), were tasked with quietly assisting Iraq in getting back off its knees, and bringing amenities to areas which had long done without or with very little; It has been a complete success.
The pylon line was non-existent in large sections: stolen, blown up, or pulled down, so engineering and construction companies from the US, UK, India, Turkey and Iraq were brought together and constructed the line pretty much from scratch.
I was there as part of the team ensuring the safety of the people involved and to create a local Iraqi guard force to ensure it stayed up once the multinationals had finished the task.
Picture Right – ‘Memorial of Bahjat Yusuf’ The memorial to the young Badr martyr in the main street of Qurnah. Bahjat was a militia man who hid out with the Madan when the repression of the southern Shia was in full swing in 1993. One day he entered Qurnah with a friend and attacked the Ba’ath Party offices, heavily defended by government police. He managed to kill eleven Ba’athists before he himself was gunned down.
After many setbacks, many of which stemmed from the culture clashes and varying work ethics among the foreign companies, phase 1 of the task was completed on schedule in February 2004. George W. Bush announced that the line was energised and much backslapping went on between the parties involved.
I left the area for a three-month spell in Nasiriyah and returned to Qurnah in August 2004. The line has stayed intact, apart from one pylon, which was pulled down near Kut as a result of a tribal dispute. The pylon was swiftly reinstated.
I’m out and about most days with our team of Iraqis and multinationals. We spend our time motoring along route six, meeting all kinds of people as we go about our business of safeguarding ‘the line’.
To my knowledge we are unique among foreign contractors: Most live in cabins inside compounds, or inside plush hotels in Baghdad’s Green zone; Their only interaction with Iraqis is on the roads, as the cut them up in their huge, armoured Fords and GMC’s. We, however, employ many locals; over 90% of our company here is made up of local people.
We live among the people in Qurnah, housed in one of our Sheikhs’ properties. We eat local food and enjoy the company of our Iraqi hosts; it is a great way to earn a living; Baghdad and Fallujah may as well be a million miles away.
Picture Above – ‘Mohammed Bahkr al Hakim’ A mural depicting Mohammed Bahkr al Hakim in Qurnah. The leading figure of the Shia uprising against Saddam’s regime in 1993. Bahkr hid out in the remnants of the Marshes with his Badr Militia after the uprising was brutally crushed.He was murdered on 29 August 2003 outside the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf. A massive 750kg car bomb killed him and 200 followers. Moqtada al Sadr is the prime suspect in his murder and the subject of an arrest warrant. Bahkr was closely aligned to Grand Ayatollah al Sistani, the leader of the moderate majority of Shi’ite Iraq. In an odd twist of fate many of these murals are daubed, very artistically, over portraits of Saddam Hussein.
Our local guards on the pylons are paid by their respective Sheikhs, who we pay in bulk for this purpose.
Picture: Right – ‘Pylon Guard, Qurnah’ – The front line against the “Ali Babas” – the ubiquitous Iraqi term for robbers and thieves. There are thousands of armed criminals in post war Iraq.Some of our Shiekhs may have dabbled in this enterprise in the past. But, as the saying goes – set a thief to catch a thief!
Because each section of the line runs through a different tribal area, our company employed a Sheikh Liaison team which went out meeting and greeting the people of the fiercely tribal Madan, and Fallah (non Madan, village Arabs). You want guards on the lineâ€¦you employ the Sheikhs’ men: The pylons, otherwise would not last 24 hours.
The line will eventually be handed over to the EPSS (Electricity Police), although the Sheikhs have threatened to pull the pylons down if these “outsiders” replace our company. Madan folk have a healthy distrust of official bodies, and with good reason considering the Saddam regime. The EPSS are seen as corrupt and not to be trusted, so we (the company, that is) could be here for a very long time.
The locals are great – warm, friendly and very hardy.
When we first came out onto the line, people were suspicious; very few foreigners have been here lately. For some of the more remote areas the last westerners to trundle by in their strange vehicles could well have been the British Expeditionary Force of WW1, in the presence of the legendary T.E. Lawrence.
But once people became used to our 4x4s, we were waved at and offered tea and such. Kids still run after us shouting “Ar teeny my, Mistah!” – “Give me water, Mister”. The boys are loud and cocky, the girls shy but just as curious.
Islam caused the women of the area to scurry away from us at first, but now they are comfortable that we pose no threat to them or their Muslim rules regarding such contact. A shy smile and a quick wave show us just how welcome we have become here.
By and by it is a happy environment, an area that has seen so much tragedy over the years has retained its dignity and human warmth.
There have been troubles – Amarah remains a dangerous town, out of bounds to civilian contractors and a stronghold of Muqtada-al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army.
Qurnah however, retains its allegiance to the murdered Mohammed Bahkr-al-Hakim, the great upstart to Saddam and the subject of the arrest warrant of Sadr, who it is alleged ordered the death of this moderate Shia cleric.
Hence the relative safety we, the foreigners, enjoy in Qurnah.
Majarr-al-Kabir is the old Madan town where six British Royal Military Policemen were slain by the mob last year. Many of the people we have met expressed shame at this tragedy, although they have now moved on from this.
The future looks decidedly brighter in this forgotten corner of Iraq. It is a place where one feels a great link to the tragedies of the past. The Madan, the British, the Turks have all brushed with sorrow in this desolate area. It has escaped the ravages of the rest of the country during this latest tragic episode of Iraq. I hope it can avoid the strife for a lot longer, but that may not be easy.
I feel privileged to be here now. I have a job that is part of something that is making a difference, even if it is to only understand a bit more about our different cultures. I have a duty to see it out, whatever happens.
Author – Billy Kaye