Iraqi Power Struggles The Big Prize of Basra

Iraq had been enjoying a period of relative peace. But the spate of violence in Basra last week showed that dangerous divisions remain in the war-torn country. And everyone has their eye on the same oil-rich prize.


The images are so terrible that no one has dared publish them. They depict the bodies of 15 women, old and young, veiled and unveiled, bullet-riddled and severely disfigured. One is already half decomposed. A group of young boys in track pants stands behind the body. They found it on the side of the road, somewhere in Basra.

Human rights activist Mohammed Tariq al-Darraji sent the photographs of the dead women to almost 300 Iraq correspondents, together with a note in broken English practically begging for their interest. The photos, the note read, depicted "gruesome crimes" committed by "criminal militias." According to al-Darraji, a total of 40 women have been tortured, shot and beheaded in Basra in recent months, some for wearing nail polish and others for going out in public without a headscarf. "We ask the reporters of the United Nations," the note continued, "when you see these pictures, why do you not do your duty?"

That was two weeks ago, and no one took up his story. And it is indicative of the fate often met by stories from Basra. Baghdad is the yardstick for measuring success or disaster in Iraq, not this run-down port city on the Gulf. The structure of postwar Iraq reflects a bitter continuation of policies begun 20 years ago under former dictator Saddam Hussein: The systematic neglect of the southern province, which, based on its oil wealth, could easily hold its own with booming emirates like Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, but is in fact a cesspool.

But as of last week, Basra has finally captured the attention that human rights activists like al-Darraji had been begging for in vain. On Tuesday, 30,000 Iraqi soldiers and police arrived in Basra to liberate the city from the plague of militias and looters that has kept it in a stranglehold for years. The city was to be cleansed of "evil elements" block after block, as Iraqi National Security Advisor Muwaffaq al-Rubaie announced. "Anyone who gets in our way will be dealt with quickly, decisively and without mercy," he added. But far from achieving its intended effect, the government's military posturing did not appear to intimidate the militias, at least not initially. In Basra, they danced boldly in front of the government forces' destroyed tanks. In other cities, like Hilla, Kut and Amara, they fired on police with rocket launchers, and in Baghdad they resumed their attacks on the Green Zone with rocket-propelled grenades.

'Illegal and Haphazard Raids'

But by Monday, it looked as though the Iraqi government had dodged a potentially dangerous crisis. Last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called the battle for Basra "decisive and final." But then his troops ran into trouble against the militia fighters loyal to Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

On Sunday, though, even as sporadic fighting continued in both Basra and Baghdad, al-Sadr ordered his troops to clear the streets. In a nine-point statement broadcast in Shiite mosques in Baghdad and southern Iraq, al-Sadr called for the "armed presence" in Basra to come to an end and exhorted his followers "to cooperate with the government to achieve security." In exchange, he asked the government to release those who have been detained but not charged and demanded a halt to "illegal and haphazard raids."

The Iraqi government on Monday said that military operations in Basra would come to an end by the end of this week.

The brief surge in violence comes after an extended period of reduced violence in Iraq, which many have attributed to an increase in the number of US troops in the country. But the Basra fighting exposed a number of potentially explosive divisions which remain and raised questions which months of relative peace had pushed into the background: How unified is the nation of Iraq? How solid is the hold on power for both Prime Minister al-Maliki and his adversary al-Sadr? And, finally, how much influence does Iran exert on its weak neighbor?

Fighting in Basra once again laid bare rifts in Iraq.

Fighting in Basra once again laid bare rifts in Iraq.

A failure of the Iraqi army's offensive would have been disastrous. But its far-from-convincing success is likely to have reverberations as well. Early next week, Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus, the US supreme commander in Iraq, will appear before the US Congress to present their second report on the security plan put in place last year. Until now, it seemed as if last year's cautiously optimistic prognoses were indeed coming to fruition. But the renewed violence now threatens to return Iraq to the center of the US presidential election campaign. US President George W. Bush praised the Basra offensive last Thursday as a "defining moment" of the Iraqi government. According to Bush, it will return the country to "normalcy," despite the fact that Prime Minister al-Maliki's decision was "bold." It was undoubtedly bold, but why did al-Maliki choose this particular moment to launch the operation?

Eight months ago Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr reined in his feared militia, the Mahdi Army, and proclaimed a cease-fire. The group promptly obeyed his orders in Baghdad and in central Iraq, where there was soon a dramatic decline in the rate of sectarian murders. The young preacher withdrew to Iran for religious study. There, and at his headquarters in Najaf, say his confidantes, he is now seeking to acquire the religious credentials he needs to ascend to the rank of ayatollah. He extended the cease-fire in February, against the growing resistance of his own lieutenants.

Repackaged as a Leader

At the same time, the Americans' portrayal of Sadr has also changed. The Evil One of the last civil war, a man wanted by authorities and dubbed the "most dangerous man in Iraq" by Newsweek, has been repackaged as a leader to whom General Petraeus now attests a sense of responsibility. US military officials speaking on Iraqi television refer to him respectfully as "His Excellency Muqtada."

They know that they owe their successes partly to his withdrawal, and still do today. "Sadr is not the enemy," Ambassador Ryan Crocker said last week in Baghdad. The Americans, he added, are battling "special groups" and "extremist military elements" that Sadr apparently "doesn't have under control." But this is not the view of Sadr's Iraqi rivals, who now seek to deprive him of his power.

  • Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, an Islamist like Sadr, is the head of the DAWA Party, Iraq's oldest and now deeply divided Shiite political group. Unlike Sadr, Maliki does not have his own private army. He needed -- and received -- Sadr's support when he was elected prime minister two years ago. He now has other allies, especially the US Army and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).

  • The leader of the ISCI is Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the cancer-stricken head of a Shiite dynasty that has been wrestling with the Sadr clan for influence in southern Iraq for decades. His son and designated successor Ammar controls a vast business empire supported by a militia known as the Badr Brigades. Established in Iran and politically far more flexible than the Sadr group, the Hakims' ISCI enjoys both Tehran's and Washington's goodwill.

  • Mohammed al-Waeli, known as the "oil prince," heads the Shiite Fadhila Party, which dominates the lucrative oil smuggling business on the Gulf. As the governor of Basra, al-Waeli competes simultaneously with Sadr, the Hakims and Maliki's DAWA Party for economic advantage. He is supported by a militia as well as by Basra security forces which have been infiltrated by his militia.

Potential Wealth

All of the militias are vying for one grand prize: the vast oil reserves in the earth below Basra. The profits on those reserves may be sparse at the moment, but hardly any other nation on earth has so much potential wealth concentrated in one place -- or is so vulnerable in one place. The mouth of the Shatt al-Arab waterway lies only 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Basra, and it is less than 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the port at Umm Qasr to the open waters of the Gulf.

Iraq's key pipelines run along this narrow strip (one of then was seriously damaged in an attack on Thursday), and the lion's share of imports coming into the country enters through the port of Umm Qasr. This port, along with the Southern Oil Company and its pumping stations, refineries and loading terminals, are Iraq's crown jewels, without which no militia could be funded and the country would ultimately be uncontrollable.

The fact that Muqtada al-Sadr, the most powerful of Iraq's militia leaders, withdrew for religious study offered his rivals a great opportunity. "They think he is gone for good," says Iraqi national Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. "The governors will be newly elected in October. His rivals believe that if they can eliminate Sadr in Basra, they will also break his back in the remaining provinces. But they are deceiving themselves. They will only make him stronger."

The Baghdad government's insistence that the goal of the offensive was to indiscriminately disarm all militias in Basra proved to be disingenuous within the first few days of the fighting. The neighborhoods controlled by the Hakims' Badr Brigades and the Fadhila militia remained calm, while fighting raged on the edges of the Hayaniya and Qibla neighborhoods, the Mahdi Army strongholds. "This is where the problem lies," says Alani. "The government is not a neutral party in this conflict." According to Alani, the government forces focused on Sadr's militia while ignoring their own allies.

'Erase Them'

"We never witnessed such attacks even under the regime of Saddam Hussein," a Sadr supporter in Basra complained after the first wave of attacks on Tuesday. "Maliki gave orders and said: 'Erase them.'"

But Sadr is not defenseless. His troops were mobilized within hours throughout the country, even in cities that had been relatively calm since his withdrawal. "You are our shell, and we are your shrapnel!" his supporters cried. The militia chief himself, who is said to be in Iraq again, remained cautious until last Friday, allowing his militia to use weapons only for "self-defense" and calling for negotiations -- which Maliki categorically rejected.

The Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group (ICG) warned in February that seeking to destroy the Mahdi Army, which grew rapidly in reaction to the acts of terror committed by the Sunni al-Qaida organization, is a dangerous undertaking doomed to failure. According to the ICG, the Mahdi Army, the militia of Iraq's poor and disenfranchised Shiites, is already too deeply entrenched.

The Americans seem to have understood this. They are now taking the same approach with the Shiites that has already been effective with the Sunnis: They recruit tribal leaders, promising them material benefits in return for refraining from violence and cooperating politically. Tribal loyalties tend not to be as strong among Shiites as among Sunnis. Still, buying the support of Shiite sheikhs is a tried and true practice -- one that Saddam Hussein used to secure his power for decades.

But the Iraqi government, now little more than a vestige of the grand Shiite coalition that won the election more than two years ago, has opted for a different principle, and it too is one with which the Iraqis are all too familiar from the past: military offensives and street fighting in their own country.

Severe Regional Consequences

Even if the purpose of the Basra offensive was to demonstrate how far the Iraqi army has come under the training of the Americans and British, it is far from clear that Maliki will be able to assert as commanding a military position as the rulers of Iraq before him.

In his book "Republic of Fear," Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya describes the terrorist state that came to an end with the fall of Baghdad five years ago. Today the Lebanese weekly newspaper Al-Akhbar describes the nation it has become as a "Republic of Militias." According to the paper, everyone in Iraq is looking out for themselves, from the "Kingdom of Kurdistan" in the north to the Sunnis -- now equipped with their own alliances thanks to American help -- to the Shiite warlords in the south.

The fighting in Basra may have died down for now. But last week's fighting showed once again that the partition of Iraq is a very real threat -- and one that would have severe consequences in the region. It could even result in the nightmare scenario of Iran intervening in the south and Turkey in the north.

King Faisal I, who the British installed as the country's ruler in 1921, said: "There is still -- and I say this with a heart full of sorrow -- no Iraqi people but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic ideas, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatever."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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