British say calm Iraq polls key to Basra investment

BASRA, Iraq  – Iraq’s elections this week will be a crucial test of whether the oil-rich but dilapidated city of Basra is ready for the international investment it desperately needs, British officials said.

Once overrun by gangs and militias vying for control of Iraq’s second biggest city, Basra is now quite calm after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered a military crackdown last year.

If the peace holds during provincial polls Saturday, it could mark a turning point for the city.

“The business world is looking quite closely at Basra now, and the elections,” the British Consul General in Basra, Nigel Haywood, told Reuters.

“If they go well, that would be a big sign that Basra really is open for business. Obviously the converse may be true (but) the signs are very good at the moment,” he added.

Under an agreement with Iraq, British combat troops stationed in Basra province will withdraw by July 31, six years after joining the U.S. invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. They have already pulled back from the city to the nearby airport.

Basra has Iraq’s only ports, and most of Iraq’s current oil production comes from oilfields in and around the province.

Yet it is strewn with rubbish and pools of sewage, and vast slums have mushroomed around the city. For years after the 2003 invasion, rampant kidnappings and killings kept investors away.

Basra residents say the local council, elected in Iraq’s first provincial polls in 2005, has provided little.

A calm election will be key, the British military said.

“If they can get through the election and the Iraqi security forces can deliver a safe post-election scenario, then we can say Basra is stable, and resilient,” British military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Dickie Winchester said.

The elections are being supervised and organized by Iraq, but the British are ready to provide support if asked. There are 4,100 British troops in Iraq, and a residual contingent will remain in the country to train local forces after July.

There have been no indications of a surge of violence before or after the polls, said Winchester.

“The security situation is good, it’s improving all the time, and with a new provincial council, that should ensure future delivery of economic success,” he said.

But one potential British investor said the new council must quickly prove it could deliver improvements after the vote.

“If there is no significant delivery. Then it will blow up,” said the investor, who was on a research trip to Basra and declined to be named. “We’re not out of the woods yet, we’re in the thick of them.”

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