Squalor And Splendor In Basra

Scott Pelley Tours Saddam's Secret Oasis

The story of Basra is a tale of two cities, the town most people live in and the special inner city built for Saddam Hussein. Correspondent Scott Pelley reports from Iraq's second largest city.


After some stiff resistance, Basra has fallen, and in the wake of combat, this city of more than one million has descended into chaos. You'll understand why when you know more about the palace Saddam built for himself.

There is no law in the ancient city. The vise grip of government is broken, and Basra is in freefall. In the last few days, looting has become the city's leading industry.

This is a big city with no water, no police, no electricity, no fire department and no schools.

Instead, there is anger.

We stopped on a street where a wartime entrepreneur, a child, was selling water. The sellers are happy enough, but talk to the other people of Basra. Some say Saddam was better than this.

One local man put it in limited but succinct English. "English invade Basra. No anything. Why?" he asked.

We asked if he didn't think he was better off with Saddam gone. "No, no," he said. "Water no good. No water, no good."

A man called Kasim told us there is no medicine in the hospitals, and there are no cops on the beat. And, he said, "At night there is a big number of thieves."

Everywhere an American goes, you hear the same plea, sent from a dusty street to the Oval Office: "My voice go to Mr. Bush. All the people need water, electric, water, water, water!"

For 500 years, Basra was the greatest city in the Arab world. Between 700 and 1200 AD, it was the port that launched Sinbad the Sailor.

All of that is gone now. Except at the end of one road. Just beyond a series of arches and just beyond the misery, there is an oasis in the squalor, created for Saddam Hussein.

The dictator's palaces in Basra are spread over hundreds of acres of canals, bridges, hubris and greed.

You can't say Saddam opened the doors of his palace to the British, but they found their way in: battering down the doors.

These days, the Royal Marines make their home here. During their down time, they write letters back to Britain that surely must begin with the words, "You'll never guess where I am now."

One of the remarkable things about the palace complex is that it doesn't appear ever to have been used. They built the buildings but when the British Royal Marines commandos broke in, they didn't find a stick of furniture anywhere, and many of the light fixtures weren't finished.

Yet, one room is dominated by a spectacular inlaid marble floor and a grand staircase with a hand-carved inlaid wood rail.

At the top of the marble stairs is probably the most spectacular part of the house: a tremendous marble dome with stained glass, laid out in the arabesque style. Right in the center of it is a single naked light bulb. Once again, they built all of this, but never quite finished it, and never moved in.

The palaces were off limits to American bombers, except for one. U.S. Marine Captain Anthony Baggs called in the 2,000-pound bomb that hit the front door. The idea was to warn the defenders of the palaces that their gilded age was over.

"It was good to get something heavy in here to show those guys what they were facing and help them make up their mind whether or not they wanted to stick around or not," Baggs says.

The air strike did the trick. When the Royal Marines crashed the gate, there was no one home.

Major Ian Clark remembers what he saw: "Gas masks still in plastic wrappers. Helmets very cheaply made laying next to shoes. Socks, uniforms left on trees. When I walked through the area, there was a pot of onion soup on a makeshift little stove. Weapons laying on the deck, ammunition everywhere. [They] just flat out left it."

Basra turned out to be much like the rest of the war. In the beginning the Iraqis fought harder than expected, but in the end they melted away faster than anyone hoped.

"I thought it was going to be a lot more intense," says John Dillard, a Marine Corps master sergeant. "I was worried about the chemical and biological agents. I thought it went very well."

Nevertheless, he knows it's not over yet. "I think there's still going to be some cleanup ops going on for a while," he says. "Still going to be a dangerous situation. But I think the big threat is done. The regime change is over, and I believe the chemical and biological threat is over."

Now, the British are making tea on steps once reserved for the boots of Saddam. Royal Marine speedboats churn the water that is so abundant within the palace grounds, and so rare outside it in the city.

The top British general came by today to look over the spoils of war. Air Marshal Brian Burridge was asked whether he believed Saddam was still alive.

"That I don't know either, but what I do know is that his regime is dead, and that's the important thing," Air Marshal Burridge said. "Saddam's fate is a matter of some indifference to me, but personally and passionately I would like to see him stand trial as a war criminal. But as far as this military operation is concerned, his fate is immaterial."

The end of Saddam one way or the other has plunged much of Iraq into anarchy. Some in Basra, at least for the moment, say even bad government was better than no government at all. One man asked us, Bush said he would free Iraq, but without water, where is freedom?

It has been two days now since Basra fell. Change is coming.

The British are working to set up a new city government. Relief aid will start flowing soon.

Already there are signs of improvement. There was less shooting in town today. The fishing boats are coming back.

There are rough times ahead for the Iraqi people and the forces now sweeping past them.

But they may feel the turbulence was well worth it when they have a chance to see over the wall.

Baggs is among those looking forward to that day. "I hope the people of Iraq and Basra get to see these areas over time and understand what the regime was doing," he said.

  • Carol Kopp

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