'Groundrush' - was the apt term a military friend with parachuting experience used to describe the feeling as my departure date for Basra loomed. A definite feeling of Basra coming up too fast for comfort - and of too much to learn in too little time.
Well I've been in Basra three weeks now and the sense of groundrush and disorientation has subsided. Things are starting to seem much clearer - though the time continues to rush past. I'm the lead DFID Representative in Basra: this means I lead a team of technical advisers who support the Iraqis, and I represent DFID in Basra to a wide range of different forums and organisations.
I’ve a very broad portfolio in which I don’t only lead the local programme work but am also a member of the multi-national Basra Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). This team includes representatives from amongst other organisations the US State Department, USAID, and the US Army Corps of Engineers.
I should add that it's not the first time I've been in Iraq. I was here in 2003 in Baghdad immediately after the fall of the Saddam government, and then again in 2004 in Erbil, northern Iraq. Both times working for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) on how to support the Iraqi Government and economy functioning after the conflict.
Coming back seems to have a certain symmetry which is why the job appealed: in at the beginning, and now, in as the UK heads towards having a more normal bilateral relationship with Iraq; previously in the centre, Baghdad, and the north - now in the South, Basra. Obviously having been before and having followed events closely over the last four years I was also curious to see how things had changed since 2004.
Over the next weeks and months I’ll write about what DFID's doing here in Basra and the challenges, opportunities and experience of working in a (post) conflict zone. But for now two immediate impressions:
The mood of optimism about Basra - since the Iraqi military led Charge of the Knights operation in March 2008 the situation in Basra has radically changed. The militias have been pushed out of the city and the security situation for us, and the Baswari population has significantly improved.
There's a sense that this change hasn't yet been fully understood back in the UK, and here there’s a real optimism about what might be possible to achieve - visitors downtown report a thriving bustling city and a far greater sense of normal city life than what was seen just seven months ago (I've yet to get out myself but hope to soon and will write about that when it happens). A key part of the DFID programme is supporting and enabling the foreign investment that Basra desperately needs to generate jobs and develop its economy. This is vital to ensure there is sustained stability in the country, and enable Iraqis to benefit from new business opportunities. Just this week we've facilitated a visit by a major potential investor who returned from a visit downtown positively impressed at the security situation and excited and seemingly seriously interested in investing.
So far so post-conflict - the specifics are different but so many of the issues are the same (and here I should add I've just come from working for the last three years with the UK Government Stabilisation Unit on and in Afghanistan): how do you make further progress now that the security situation is evolving; the practical difficulties of doing relatively simple things, for example reliably getting in and out and around the country - all too often the best laid plans go to waste; the huge range of actors military and civilian, Iraqi and International that are present and the difficulties in ensuring that things add up to - and only if you're good exceed - the sum of their parts; and the bizarre events that leave you pinching yourself that as a civil servant you're going through, for example the video-conference with London during which the indirect fire (rockets or mortars) alarm goes off (the first time in over 5 weeks) causing everyone to dive to the ground for cover. Minutes later we re-emerged to carry on as though nothing had happened - though wearing body armour and helmet - and me with a couple of bloody elbows from hitting the cheap nylon carpet too fast.
I'll leave it at that for now but am looking forward to sharing further thoughts and hearing your reactions.