Updated: Mar 4
Basra is Iraq's second largest city and is almost within sight of the Iranian border. Early in 2010, there was still a sense of uneasiness in the air despite the exit of the British army and the handover of control to Iraqi forces in April 2009. The streets were mostly deserted and few shops were open. Suicide bombers were still active across Iraq. Magnetic and sticky bombs were being used to target individuals and vehicles all over the country.
With hindsight, a trade mission to Basra in 2010 was a bold move. With every confidence, we checked onto the Manawi Basha hotel in the heart of Basra. The conference went well and in the evening on our second day we sat down for dinner with the Governor of Basra. The food was traditional Iraqi fare served from a well-stocked buffet. Half-way through the meal, there was a very loud noise and water started to pour through the ceiling of the hotel lobby.
The Governor's security detail jumped out of their seats, AK47's at the ready. The looks of alarm on their faces and the sight of their weapons being waved in the air was enough to encourage me and the other diners to drop to the floor. We waited there for a moment or two. As there were no further explosions the security guards stopped running around and we all got off the floor and sat back on our chairs. There was nothing to do except continue eating.
The guest sitting next to me looked up from his plate and suggested that the explosion had probably been caused by a rocket or a mortar. "I would not be surprised if there is a hole in the roof". He scurried off to get his pistol, which he had left in his room and inspect the damage. Five minutes later, he came back. "I was wrong. It was probably a small bomb. You should see the mess that it has made of the room opposite your room."
I followed him up the stairs to the third floor. The first damage I noticed was a pile of rubble in corridor. As I reached the door of my room, I could see that the room opposite mine had born the brunt of the explosion. The bathroom had been destroyed, the window had been blown out and there was a scorch mark on the headboard over what was left of the bed. Oddly, the television was intact and a half empty Pepsi can still stood on the widow ledge. The bomb could only have been small, probably hidden behind the water heater in the bathroom. I was told that a rocket would have filled the room with shrapnel.
After dinner, the hotel management helped us all move to rooms on the first floor.
Luckily, the only injury was sustained by someone who was outside at e time of the blast having a cigarette, he had small cut on his face from a tiny shard of broken glass.
I received a call from the cavalry and an hour later, an Iraqi arrived with a large black plastic rubbish bag that he handed to me. Armed with the contents of the bag, i retreated to my room with a select group of eager survivors. The bag contained several bottles of whiskey and a large number of cans of lager. This was a Basra post-blast bash to remember.
Undeterred, the conference continued in the morning as if nothing had happened. A large Iraqi flag was used to cover the hole in the side of the hotel. One of the hotel gardeners sat on the lawn in front of the hotel sweeping the fragments of broken glass into a cardboard box. Bits of the room's window frame were found embedded in a steel fence 150 feet away from the hotel.
Some uniformed Iraqis arrived to investigate. After inspecting the damage, they reappeared in the lobby with a flattened copper water heater. The electric heating element was clearly visible. They explained that they were showing us the gas water heater that had exploded.
There had been no bomb,
Later, I asked a member of staff what gas was supplied to the hotel. He looked surprised and said "there is no gas in this hotel".
The conference was success and all too soon it was over. It was time to go home.
As we waited in the lobby for our shuttle to the airport, the hotel manager appeared and asked to see the guest whose room had been blown up. With great ceremony, he presented the guest with a suit wrapped in a dry cleaner's bag. He explained that his staff had retrieved the suit from the rubble and had it cleaned.
Not wishing to alarm my family, I did not mention this incident. Afterall, it was only a malfunctioning water heater....
Three years later, my wife heard me talking about this incident with a friend. When challenged to explain why I had not told her about it, I could only manage a half-baked excuse.
"I told you about this years ago....you never listen to anything I say..."
It was worth a try!