Published: 00:00 GMT Daylight Time - Tuesday 08 August 2006
Iraq - Basra Shi'a militias and British forces in the south
Basra is Iraq's second largest city with a population of some 2.6 million. It is Iraq's main port, centre of its oil industry and capital of the southern Basra governorate. Once regarded as a relatively quiet area policed by culturally alert British forces, it has recently seen a steep rise in violence, as rival Shi'a militias vie for control of the city and its oil hub. Basra always had a sizeable Sunni minority. Since the fall of the Saddam regime, the Sunni population has been reduced from 40 percent of the total population in 2003 to some 15 percent in 2006. This is mainly the result of Shi'a militias targeting the Sunni population. Forced immigration tactics involved sending warning letters containing orders to leave Basra, marking Sunni houses with red paint, preventing wounded Sunnis from reaching hospital, discrimination in employment and services, and much more. Similar tactics have also been used against the much smaller Christian and Mandean minority communities.
Struggle for control of Basra
The real power arbitrators in the south are not the central government democratic institutions, but the Shi'a Islamist parties, factions and their militias, imposing their will on the population by force and intimidation. They have created a virtual Islamist Shi'a region in which alcohol is banned, rigid Islamic dress is imposed, and shari'a law is paramount.
In Basra alcohol and music shops have been closed, women harassed for not wearing the veil, and some women arrested for prostitution on slender evidence. The Shi'a south has been transformed into an Islamic state with shari'a being applied in the courts and politicians seeking the approval of clerics in all important decisions.
Shi'a militias have established themselves as a separate power in the south, where they compete with each other for control of city quarters, rural areas and political and economic assets. They have created their own structures of authority, unaccountable to democratic institutions. They often fight each other as they try to set up their semi-independent fiefs. Operating independently or as part of the local security forces, they have been engaged in waves of abductions, assassinations, and intimidation as they consolidate their control over various territories. In the process they instigate sporadic confrontations with their opponents and they provide patronage to their followers. The security forces are afraid to face up to the militias or to the powerful tribes allied to them in the area. The militias claim they are filling the power vacuum in the region and ensuring a minimum of security and stability, preventing lawlessness and chaos. Their critics argue that they are wresting control over the security forces to establish facts on the ground that enhance their power regardless of the law and of the central state.
In the December 2005 elections in Basra the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) won the largest number of seats, but the Sadrists managed to form a coalition with other Shi'a groups to control the town council. This has led to bad feelings between the two parties and their militias in Basra.
Much inter-militia strife is focused around control of oil smuggling routes that were established to defy UN sanctions against the Saddam Hussein regime. Militias have infiltrated sectors of the police force and are involved in kidnapping and assassinations. Iran exerts strong influence among the Shi'a militias in Basra encouraging hardline Islamic codes of dress and behaviour in what was once a fairly liberal city.
Basra seems to be in a chaotic situation with a variety of militias seeking to strengthen their position. The security situation collapsed in mid-May 2006 in the wake of the killing by persons dressed as Iraqi policemen of Sheikh Hasan Jarih al-Karamishi, the head of the al-Karamisha tribe in Basra. Fire fights broke out in several districts of the city and armed members of the al-Karamisha tribe roamed the streets killing 11 policemen. They also burned down two buildings used as party headquarters by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Police and army did not dare to intervene.
There are actually three separate conflicts going on simultaneously in the South:
1. An internal Shi'a Islamist struggle between the various militias over who controls what in the scramble for power.
2. An ethnic cleansing of non-Shi'a: Sunnis, Christians, Mandeans, etc. who flee the area due to the violent intimidation.
3. The attacks on the British forces, who in their turn have to confront the militias in order to impose a certain degree of security, control, and law and order.
The Sadrists are also instigating an anti-British propaganda campaign in the Basra region. The British fiasco in Basra in September 2005, when a British military force had to smash its way into the Basra police station to release two British soldiers, revealed the extent of Sadrist infiltration of the police force in that area. The Basra police chief admitted that he could trust less than 25 percent of his officers. Since then British forces have come under repeated attacks. Muqtada Al-Sadr's forces are said to be involved in the anti-British attacks in and around Basra that have resulted in several casualties. The downing of a British Lynx Mark 7 helicopter in Basra in May 2006 using a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile was blamed on the Mahdi Army backed by Iran who seeks to embarrass Britain so as to relieve the pressure on Iran in its search for nuclear military capability. Since January 2006 some 30 roadside bombs have killed 13 soldiers. British compounds are frequently being attacked by mortars and rocket propelled grenade (RPGs).
The Mahdi Army continues to be the most implacable enemy to the British presence in the south of Iraq, and especially Basra. It engages in sporadic attacks on the British security forces in the region to stress its Iraqi nationalist credentials and gain in popularity. The Mahdi Army has succeeded in infiltrating the police force in the area (which numbers some 13,600 members), damaging any cooperation with the British forces. In August 2005 an Iraqi official estimated that 90 percent of police officers were loyal to the Shi'a Islamist parties. Muqtada was able to recruit members of the police force, who remain in their official posts, but unofficially served as undercover agents for the Mahdi Army.
The "softly, softly" British approach, while guaranteeing a measure of quiet over the years since the invasion and keeping confrontation and casualties down, has at the same time enabled the various Shi'a movements to build up their militias, strengthen the role of Shi'a Islamism in the region, weaken the secular forces, and stake their claims to control of specific regions, quarters, institutions and power centres. Hostility to the British presence is increasing and dangerous, while the reduction in the strength of the British force has made it difficult to effectively maintain its security role.
© The Barnabas Aid
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