Kicking the British Poodle in Basra

Posted by Cutler on May 29, 2007
britain, Iraq

Israeli strategic studies scholar Amikam Nachmani has long argued that the US consistently and forcefully–if quietly–undermined and marginalized British imperial control around the world.

Is this pattern also evident in Iraq today?  Is the US quietly working to undermine the British political position in Iraq?

Are the US and the UK on opposing sides in the relatively low-intensity “Shiite civil war” in Basra?

According to Reuters, British forces issued a press release on Friday, May 25, 2007 announcing that a Sadrist “militia leader” in Basra was killed in a “precision strike” on his car.

A later British report qualified the official story of the event:

[British military spokesman] Major David Gell said Abu Qader [“the leader of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia in the southern Iraqi city of Basra”] and at least one aide were shot shortly after leaving Sadr’s offices in the centre of the city, the hub of Iraq’s main oilfields. He said the operation was authorised by the Iraqi government…

“During the arrest operation the targeted individual was killed … after he resisted arrest,” he said.

According to the Guardian, the British were pretty unhappy with Abu Qader (also sometimes identified as Abu Qadir or Wissam al-Waili):

The British army yesterday said Mr Qader was a “known key criminal leader who was believed to have been involved in criminal activity such as weapons trafficking, theft and assassinations”. “He was also suspected of intimidation against local security forces and local civilians in Basra and planning and participating in attacks against MNF [multinational forces].” It described him as a “prominent member of the militant arm of Jaish al-Mahdi in the Basra area”. “The citizens of Basra are far safer now that the criminal leader is off the streets.”

Nevertheless, Abu Qader also had some well-positioned defenders.  The Guardian reports:

[T]he Iraqi military intelligence officer in Basra told the Guardian Mr Qader was known for instilling restraint in his men, and said his absence could unleash new violence on the city. “He was a very good person, serious and was working very hard to stabilise Basra,” the officer said. “He used to restrain his men from going into clashes against other militias. He was a nationalist who had no connections to Iran. There will be repercussions as his men will accuse Fadhila [a rival Shia faction] and they will try to avenge his death.”

The “precision strike” against Abu Qader is best understood as part of a larger effort by the British and the local Fadhila party (the so-called “Virtue Party) to bolster their position ahead of a planned British withdrawal.

In February 2007, Reuters reported:

In London, Blair told parliament Britain would reduce its troop levels by 1,600 over coming months, but said its soldiers would stay in Iraq into 2008 as long as they were wanted. Britain currently has 7,100 troops in Iraq.

Since late last year British troops have been conducting a major security sweep called Operation Sinbad aimed at purging the police of militia infiltration…

The Sadrists are believed to have infiltrated the security forces in the city and are often at odds with a pro-British governor from the rival Shi’ite Fadhila party.

As part of Operation Sinbad, British forces cleared Basra’s serious crimes unit on Dec. 25 and blew up the building with explosives after intelligence had suggested “rogue” officers were about to execute prisoners. The governor backed the move but the police chief was outraged.

The Guardian also suggests that the British are closely aligned with the Fadhila party and its governor, Mohammed al-Waeli:

Nasaif Jassem, a city councillor for the Fadhila party that controls the governorship and the oil industry in Basra, was critical of Iranian interference. Fadhila, widely seen as backed by the British, split from the main Shia alliance in Baghdad…

Meanwhile, all of the key US-backed Shiite political forces are united in trying to oust the Fadhila-backed provincial governor of Basra.  The Associated Press reports:

Two-thirds of the members of the Basra provincial council signed a statement Saturday declaring they have no confidence in the governor of the oil-rich province and asked parliament to remove him, a local official said…

Twenty-seven council members, or two-thirds, signed the statement and sent it to the parliamentary committee on provincial affairs, the official said…

The document was signed by the members of the Basra Islamic List, an alliance of Shiite parties opposed to Fadhila, and eight members of the Center Bloc.

The Basra Islamic List includes the Sadrist Movement of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Badr Organization, the Master of All Martyrs Movement and Hezbollah. The List holds 19 of the 41 provincial council seats, while Fadhila has 12.

Doesn’t this suggest that the US and the UK are backing opposing sides in the “Shiite civil war” for control of southern Iraq?

And, insofar as British forces are widely viewed as being chased out of Basra, is it too much to suggest that the US is “gently” showing the British the door?

2 Comments to Kicking the British Poodle in Basra

  • Iraqi society is undergoing a highly complex transition from the rigidly hierarchical and thus relatively simple (in the sense of structure and process) society of the Saddam era to something different. When a society is in the midst of such a transition, actors’ roles and institutional structures are fragile, so interventions are likely to have unforeseen consequences. Aggressive interventions—i.e., the use of massive force or the exercise of force in “final” ways, such as killing leaders or disrupting organizations—are particularly likely to produce unintended results.

    The various portrayals of Abu Qader, killed last week in Basra, are instructive. He was a “criminal leader” involved in “weapons trafficking” but yet “known for instilling restraint in his men” and trying to “stabilize” Basra. If the purpose of killing him was to bring order to Basra, it is not at all clear that his killers thought this through very carefully.

    Abu Qader’s death aggravates and leaves unresolved a host of issues: where do “his men” and their families now turn and what lessons about their behavior are they now to learn? What kind of leader is likely to fill the power vacuum he leaves behind? Was his group providing any sort of local security or perhaps providing social services to the community? How will his death affect the behavior of local militias in competition with him?

    Both locally, in Basra, and nationally, it remains to be seen what repercussions will ensue from this crude intervention in the delicate process of socio-political transition. Multiply such “interventions” throughout Iraq, and one begins to understand why events there are so out-of-control.

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