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IRAQ: Basra fishermen suffer security squeeze and fuel price hike

BAGHDAD, 6 Feb 2007 (IRIN) - Fisherman Mazin Jawad, 36, cannot look at his seven children without feelings of shame and guilt overcoming him. Without the income he used to have, he has had to take four of them out of school and taken ‘luxuries’ such as meat out of their lives.

Like his fellow fishermen in Basra, some 600km south of the capital, Baghdad, Jawad has found it difficult to make a living since the government nearly doubled fuel prices at the start of 2007 and since security measures were tightened in Iraqi waters not long before this.

“The new diesel prices made it very difficult for us to make any profit from fishing. In addition, we face daily difficulties in the sea by Iranian and Kuwaiti authorities. For about a month now we have been forced to abandon our only source of income,” Jawad told IRIN in a phone interview on Monday while he was taking part in a demonstration with other fishermen.

“We now depend on our savings, which are running out, and we are helping each other through this ordeal," said Jawad.

Nearly 5,000 fishermen in Basra have been grounded by a new 2007 diesel price of 300 Iraqi dinars (about 23 US cents) per litre – double the price that was fixed at the start of 2006, and nearly 40 times more than the pre-war price of 8 Iraqi dinars (less than 1 US cent).

Oil products and electricity were heavily subsidised under the government of deceased former president Saddam Hussein. Successive post-Saddam governments continued to do this but began yielding to pressure by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and international donors to reduce subsidies to boost the economy.

In late 2005, oil product prices were increased by nine times.

“We are under two fires: the fire of high prices and the fire of Iranian and Kuwaiti authorities as their patrols prevent us from going further out in Iraqi territorial waters, citing security reasons,” Ahmed al-Ba’aj, Head of the Union of the Fishermen Societies in Basra, said.

Arms and oil smugglers

Kuwaiti and Iranian authorities have been patrolling Gulf waters since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 in search of arms and oil smugglers. With insurgency and sectarian violence escalating over the past year in Iraq, Basra’s fishermen have become increasingly restricted by these patrols.

According to al-Ba’aj, whose union oversees four fishermen societies in Basra, about 150 fishermen have been arrested by Iranian authorities for “allegedly crossing their territorial water and threatening their security”.

“We have complained thousands of times and have received only promises from the Iraqi government. We’ll continue staging demonstrations all over the city. If the government doesn’t help us, then they can take our boats and should give us monetary compensation to find other work,” he said.

“The Iraqi government does not support fishermen, unlike neighbouring Kuwait and Iran which help their fisherman with subsidies and modern fishing equipment. The Iraqi government treats us if we are not Iraqis,” al-Ba’aj added.

The hike in oil product prices has been raising tempers and lowering morale among the Iraqi people who are already enduring car bombs, kidnappings, killings, gun battles and assassinations.

But the government says it is a necessary measure that must be taken.

“It is a must for the government to achieve two goals: first, to meet international demand [for oil]; and second, to curb smuggling of oil products to neighbouring countries. Cheap domestic fuel prices encouraged such smuggling outside Iraq," said Alaa Naiem al-Mousawi, a press officer in the Iraqi Ministry of Oil.

Basra, Iraq’s second largest city and its only port in the south, is home to about three million people and is where most of the 7,000 British troops in the country are based. Like other Iraqi cities, Basra sees constant bombings, shootings and kidnappings.

Karima Khalaf, a 40-year-old mother-of-six, has been forced to work as a maid so as to feed her children because her husband was arrested nearly a month ago by Iranian coast guards while fishing in the Gulf.

“His work was our main source for feeding these kids and I can’t stand it seeing them starving or living without education. This is why I have accepted to work as a maid for their sake,” Khalaf said.


The above article comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2007

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