The area surrounding Basra has substantial petroleum resources with many oil wells. The city also has an international airport. Basra is in a fertile agricultural region, with major products including rice, maize corn, barley, millet, wheat, dates, and livestock. The city's oil refinery has a production capacity of about 140,000 barrels a day (22,300 m³).
The city was founded by caliph Omar in 636. Under the name of Bassorah it is mentioned in the Arabian Nights, and Sindbad the Sailor was said to have begun his voyages here. It was long a flourishing commercial and cultural center, until it was captured by the Ottoman Empire in 1668, after which it declined in importance.
During World War I the occupying British modernized the port (works designed by Sir George Buchanan (engineer)), which became the principle port of Iraq. During World War II it was an important port through which flowed much of the equipment and supplies sent to Russia by the other allies. At the end of the second world war the population was some 93,000 people.
The University of Al Basrah was founded in 1964.
By 1977 the population had risen to a peak population of some 1.5 million. The population declined during the Iran-Iraq War, being under 900,000 in the late 1980s, possibly reaching a low point of just over 400,000 during the worst of the war. The city was repeatedly shelled by Iran and was the site of many fierce battles, but never fell.
After the first Gulf War Basra was the site of widespread revolt against Saddam Hussain, which was violently put down; subsequently the Iraqi government deliberately neglected the city and much commerce was diverted to Umm Qasr.
In March through May of 2003, Basra was a battle site in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.