Cautious return to Iraq
Basra MemorialREAD STORY
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The challenge CWGC faces in Iraq is huge – it’s the equivalent of building a new Tyne Cot Memorial, in the middle of the desert, in a country where safe access can’t always be guaranteed.
And that’s just looking at solving one of the 19 locations in the country we’re responsible for. Most have been damaged or deteriorated due to recent conflicts.
Sadly, Iraq is no stranger to war. During the First World War, then known as Mesopotamia, it was the scene of the Empire’s largest operations outside of Europe and saw its worst defeat at the Siege of Kut.
Today Iraqis live with the fallout of more recent upheavals. The Commission has had to stop and start here on many occasions. In 1990 we formally withdrew. It was simply unsafe.
In our absence many sites have deteriorated. The soil in the region has such high levels of salt that, without preventative work, it seeps into headstones making them so brittle they can be virtually crumbled by hand.
The largest memorial in the country is the Basra Memorial. It originally stood at the side of the Shatt al-Arab River on the edge of the city but was moved in the late 1990s by Saddam Hussein’s regime into the desert.
After decades without regular maintenance, the memorial is showing signs of age. However, it’s not just repair works that are needed here – it’s missing 30,000 names, too, the equivalent of the Tyne Cot Memorial.
When first unveiled in 1929 the names of most of the men of the Indian Army who it commemorates were not accurate. Records at the time hadn’t been properly compiled and the Commission could only be provided with the names of Indian officers, and British officers and men.
Since then an accurate list of the names have since been compiled and all lie in the CWGC’s Iraq Roll of Honour, on display in the UK, waiting for a time when conditions on the ground allow a more permanent solution.
However, there is hope. Step by step, progress is being made in Iraq.
In 2012, during a gap in hostilities, Kut War Cemetery was completely renovated. Before and after images are testament to the success. In 2019, the most recent project has also succeeded.
Within the walls of Habbaniya, a former RAF base that’s now operated by the Iraqi Army, the war cemetery was in almost complete disrepair.
Now, nearly 300 brand new headstones have been installed and the entire site renovated, only made possible by finding a trusted local contractor.
The Commission has to play the long game at times. When your task lasts forever, you never know what progress the future might bring.
We now know more about this site.
Read our report into historical acts of non-commemoration.