BASRA, Iraq (AFP) – The Iraqi port city of Basra, already prey to a nasty turf war between rival militia factions, has now been gripped by a new fear — a giant badger stalking the streets by night.
Local farmers have caught and killed several of the beasts, but this has done nothing to dispel rumours of a bear-like monster that eats humans and was allegedly released into the area by British forces to spread panic.
Iraqi scientists have attempted to calm the public but, amid the confusion and mistrust spawned by the ongoing guerrilla war, the story has spread like wildfire in the streets of the city and the villages round about.
Mushtaq Abdul-Mahdi, director of Basra’s veterinary hospital, has inspected the corpses of several dead badgers and tries to reassure his fellow citizens that they are not a new post-war arrival in the region.
“These animals appeared before the fall of the regime in 1986. They are known as Al-Ghirayri and locally as Al-Girta,” he told AFP. “Talk that this animal was brought by the British forces is incorrect and unscientific.”
British troops have been based in Basra since the 2003 US-led invasion overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein, and the 5,500 that remain still face the threat of Shiite militias battling for the region’s oil resources.
They also have to battle the Iraqi rumour mill, as locals are quick to blame them for almost any calamity that befalls the area — including an apparent plague of vicious badgers with long claws and powerful jaws.
British army spokesman Major David Gell said the animals were thought to be a kind of honey badger — melivora capensis — which can be fierce but are not usually dangerous to humans unless provoked.
“They are native to the region but rare in Iraq. They’re nocturnal carnivores with a fearsome reputation, but they don’t stalk humans and carry them back to their lair,” he said.
Both the scientists and the soldiers agree that the badger ought not to be a danger to humans, but so far they have failed to reassure the populace.
“I was sleeping at night when this strange animal hit me on my head. I have not seen such an animal before. My husband hurried to shoot it but it was as swift as a deer,” said Suad Hassan, a 30-year-old housewife.
“It is the size of a dog but his head is like a monkey. It runs so quickly.”
Cell phone video of the badgers circulating in Basra shows a stocky skunk-like animal with long front claws.
The honey badger, or ratel, is known as a brave predator capable of killing a cobra. It weighs up to 14 kilos (30 pounds), not usually known as man-eater.
Sattar Jabbar, a 50-year-old local farmer from Abu Sakhar north of Basra, believes the badger can tackle even large prey.
“I saw it three days ago at night attacking animals. It even ate a cow. It tore the cow up piece by piece. I tried to shoot it with my gun but it ran away into the orchards. I missed it,” he said.
In Iraq there can be only one explanation for an animal so vicious.
“I believe this animal appeared following a raid to the region by the British forces,” said Ali Mohsen, a farmer in his 40s from Karmat Ali, near the air base used by the multinational force.
“As we are close to the airport, they probably released this animal into the area,” he reasoned.
Amid such tales, there is little experts like Dr Ghazi Yaqub Azzam, deputy dean of the veterinary college, can do to reassure his neighbours.
“Its nature is to eat small animals like hens and rats. It has powerful senses of hearing and smell. It gets aggressive if senses danger, but it doesn’t attack man unless threatened,” he said.
Azzam speculated that the badgers were being driven towards the city because Iraq is trying to re-flood marshland north of Basra that was drained by Saddam in order to persecute local Marsh Arab tribes.
For all that, the British army thinks Basrawis have little to fear.
“If you cornered it and poked it with a stick, then the smart money would be on the badger,” warned Gell, who has faced many rumours like this one in his tour in Iraq.
“We have not released giant badgers in Basra,” he said, “and nor have we been collecting eggs and releasing serpents into the Shatt al-Arab river.”