Basra Lockdown

Posted by Cutler on June 05, 2006

The new Maliki government has made headlines for one major action–swooping into Basra with talk of smashing militias and imposing a state of emergency. The decision seems to have been welcomed by–and probably initiated under pressure from–the US and the UK.

The Basra initiative seems likely to be very significant, although it is hard to make sense of the politics at this juncture. But understanding the politics of Basra may prove quite helpful going forward, if only because the nature of the Maliki government otherwise remains so vague–especially in relation to the former Jaafari government, which drew so much criticism from the US. Does Basra signal anything about the contours of the new Iraqi politics?

Perhaps the first thing to note is that the stakes in Basra seem quite high: NYT columnist Thomas Friedman recently went so far as to say that the true obstacle in Iraq has now moved from the Sunni insurgency to Shiite militias in Basra. His article, “Insurgency Out, Anarchy In” is for subscribers only (value added?), but here are some “highlights” of his latest missive…

You see, the insurgency in Iraq is in its ”last throes’‘ — just like Dick Cheney said. Unfortunately, it’s being replaced by anarchy in many neighborhoods — not democracy…

Indeed, there has been a subtle but important change in the violence in Iraq. The main enemy in many places is no longer the Sunni insurgency. It is anarchy. Mini-wars of all against all. As the BBC reported Wednesday from Basra: Prime Minister Nuri Maliki ”has declared a monthlong state of emergency in Basra, which has been plagued by sectarian clashes, anarchy and factional rivalry.” That’s what happens in a security vacuum…

We are not losing Iraq to the Iraqi Vietcong — traditional nationalists. Iraq has a freely elected nationalist government. No, we are losing in Iraq to sectarian theocrats, Islamo-fascists and local and regional tyrants…

We’ll see about the idea that the insurgency is actually in its “last throes.” Suffice it to say I have my doubts that the “Iraqi Vietcong” has been coopted and contained by the “elected nationalist government.” What news prompts this unlikely prediction?

The more serious part of the Friedman piece is his tirade against political realities in Basra, especially since this part likely mirrors Bush administration concerns. The problem is not really “anarchy” (or, better, the distinguishing characteristic of Basra is not anarchy) but the loss of British control over the oil-rich Shiite city. The cry of “anarchy” functions to justify the suspension of local control by a democratically elected Provincial Council under the state of emergency.

The real issue is that the UK began to lose political control of Basra when SCIRI lost control of the Basra Provincial Council to the “Islamic Virtue Party” (Fadhila). The Washington Post quotes Reidar Visser on the roots current situation:

“The conflict with SCIRI in Basra dates back to early 2005, when, after the local elections, Fadhila managed to sideline SCIRI in the local governorate council, by entering into coalition with smaller parties,” Visser wrote in an e-mail. “At first, the tension was mainly fought out within the council. Then SCIRI boycotted the council for a while, and now it seems that the conflict has begun affecting the general security situation in Basra.”

One thing seems clear enough. The UK has not gotten along well with Fadhila, especially Fadhila-backed Governor, Mohammed al-Waeli, along Ayatollah Mohammed al-Yacoubi, the religious figure most closely associated with Fadhila.

According to the Washington Post report, the British hold Waeli and Fadhila responsible for the collapse of the Basra police force and for guerilla attacks on British soldiers.

The governor of Basra province, Mohammed al-Waeli, suspended the police chief, Maj. Gen. Hassan Suwadi and demanded he be fired, saying he was involved in criminal activities. A bomb exploded outside Suwadi’s house in an apparent attempt to kill him. And nine British soldiers have died this month in three incidents, including the downing of a helicopter.

According to the Telegraph Waeli’s clashes with the police go back to the summer of 2005. At that time,

Gen Hassan al-Sade, the chief of police, recently admitted that he had lost control of the majority of his officers because of penetration of the force by members of the militias.

Meanwhile, Ayatollah Mohammed al-Yacoubi, the religious leader of Fadhila, has emerged as a major thorn in the side of US and UK political officials. A September 24, 2005 Telegraph report provides a very useful background for understanding the current impasse:

Basra lurched further towards religious extremism yesterday after the leader of one of the province’s biggest political parties instructed his supporters to reject a draft constitution in a national referendum next month.

The unexpected announcement by Ayatollah Mohammed Yaqubi, head of the Fadhila party, has shocked British diplomats and raised fears that Basra could become the main focus for violence in the Shia-dominated south.

Mr Yaqubi’s declaration came as the most revered Shia figure in Iraq, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, signalled that he would endorse the constitution and indicated the possibility of a damaging split among Iraq’s usually cohesive Shia majority.

Mr Yaqubi’s apparent mutiny also risks turning Basra into a radical outpost, western diplomats warned.

“There has always been a small possibility that Basra could become something like the Fallujah of the south,” a western diplomat in Baghdad said…

The new stance by Mr Yaqubi locks the ayatollah into a surprising alliance with his one-time rival, the fiery young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militiamen took captive two SAS soldiers earlier this week.

Yaqubi and Sadr were rivals to succeed the latter’s father, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, one of the country’s most respected clerics until he was assassinated in 1999.

Sadr’s appeal is limited to the slums of Basra but he has a disproportionate influence on the southern capital’s police force, thanks to a heavy degree of infiltration by his Mahdi Army, which twice rose up against US forces last year.

The new alliance will be an unwelcome development and suggests that Basra’s governor, a member of Fadhila who has withdrawn his co-operation from the British, could prove increasingly intransigent in the future.

More recently, the Daily Times (Pakistan) and Reuters reported that Yaqubi called for the US to dump Ambassador Khalilzad for the same reasons that alienate Right Zionists in the US, namely his attempt to appease the Sunni Arab minority:

“The American ambassador and the tyrants of the Arab states are giving political support to those parties who provide political cover for the terrorists.”

This last remark by Yaqubi raises a central question about the most recent Basra blowup: are all factiosn within the US/UK “coalition” equally afraid of Fadhila controlling Basra oil? Does the conflict with Fadhila intersect at all with Right Zionist/Right Arabist factional fights?
At a basic level, the “loss” of Basra matters to all factions because it is home to the oil industry and Iraq’s only outlet to Gulf tankers. In the formation of the Maliki government, Fadhila lost control of the oil ministry to Sistani-aligned Hussein al-Shahristani. Nevertheless, the party still has considerable control over the oil industry in Basra itself. Fadhila formally left the Shiite Alliance when Maliki moved to hand the oil ministry to Shahristani and now threatens to sabotage production at Basra oil facilities (currently the only major source of Iraqi oil exports).

A May 26, 2006 Reuters report provides the basic outline:

Iraq’s new government risks being held to ransom by a dissident Shi’ite faction using its local clout in Basra to hobble vital oil exports, Iraqi officials and senior political sources said on Friday.

They warned that the locally powerful Fadhila party was threatening to have members in the oil industry stage a go-slow to halt exports through the key southern oil port if it did not win the concessions it wanted from Baghdad.

“Fadhila is in control,” a senior Shi’ite political source close to the party said…

He who owns Basra owns the oil reserves. It is the gateway to the Gulf,” the Shi’ite political source said. “It’s the richest city in the world. It has a strategic position so why would any one give it up?

However, at a deeper level, the politics of Basra oil seems wrapped up in the larger question of Shiite power (and regional autonomy) in relation to the Sunni Arab minority. Right Arabists defend a centralized state as the basis for rebuilding and retaining Sunni Arab political dominance while Right Zionists defend regional autonomy for Shiites and Kurds.

On the one hand, Sharistani–the new oil minister–has emphasized his desire to centralize control over the oil industry. The May 26 Reuters report suggests,

Shahristani in turn has vowed to centralize control of oil in Baghdad and crack down hard on corruption and oil smuggling, which officials say are endemic in the southern oilfields.

An earlier Reuters report included quoted Sharistani:

“According to the constitution the oil and gas are the property of all Iraqi people, the revenues will be put in the state coffer,” said the Shiite Islamist known for his no-nonsense approach.

The main concern for regions is to get its share and not to run the oilfields or sign any contracts,” he added.

Such comments can hardly be welcomed by Kurdish or Shiite advocates of regional autonomy–including control over all new oil field development.

Where does Fadhila stand on the issue of Shiite regional autonomy? This is where things get very murky. Some reports suggest that Fadhila itself has campaigned against Shiite demands for regional autonomy. For example, in August 2005 when SCIRI leaders announced their support for Shiite autonomy, the New York Times article suggested:

One of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite politicians on Thursday strongly backed demands for the formation of a semi-independent region in the oil-rich south, adding fresh turmoil to the drafting of a new constitution as the deadline for its completion draws near.

The politician, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, a religious Shiite with close ties to Iran, told a large gathering in the holy city of Najaf that it was “necessary” for Shiite Arabs to secure broad governing powers for the south, which is dominated by the Shiites and was long oppressed under the rule of Saddam Hussein…

Mr. Hakim’s remarks followed a meeting he had Wednesday in Najaf with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in Iraq. The ayatollah told Shiite politicians last week that he supported the concept of autonomy, though he did not make specific recommendations…

Many of the Shiite politicians who initially backed the idea of southern autonomy are secular. The most powerful supporter has been Ahmad Chalabi, a vice prime minister and a former Pentagon favorite. Mr. Hakim is the first leading religious Shiite figure to lend his backing in such a public way…

But there are also Shiites who vehemently oppose any move toward autonomy. Moktada al-Sadr, the young rebel cleric who led two uprisings against the Americans last year, and Ayatollah Muhammad Yacoubi, another radical cleric with ties to Mr. Sadr, have both denounced the movement, saying it goes against the concept of central Islamic rule.

If Maliki is backed by Sadr and if both Sadr and Yaqubi favor centralization, then where is the fight between these forces and Sharistani?
Perhaps Sharistani’s centralization move is a head fake. He does favor regional autonomy, but only once Basra has been “liberated” from the “anarchy” of Fadhila control. For now, centralized control means taking control away from Yaqubi and his Fadhila party. In the longer-term, it is a good bet that Sharistani will support regional autonomy.

Meanwhile, Yaqubi and Sadr both appear to be Iraqi nationalists who are aligned against the other Shiite parties (esp. SCIRI) who favor regional autonomy. The only way to re-align Yaqubi and Sadr would be to shift the axis of conflict from “central v. regional” to “Shiite v. Sunni.” Of course, that is Zarqawi’s central function, isnt’ it?

At present, however, the Sadr/Yaqubi alliance in Basra is public enemy number. The crime is spoiling the fantasy of an independent Basra. That dream was most clearly sketched in a February 27, 2005 James Glanz article in New York Times entitled “Iraq’s Serene South Asks, Who Needs Baghdad?

[I]f no inconsiderable number of people here have their way, the provinces of the south, home to rich oil reserves but kept poor by Saddam Hussein, will soon become a separate country, or at least a semi-autonomous region in a loosely federal Iraq. The clear southern preference for profit over politics could make it a place where foreign companies willing to invest hard cash are able to do business.

”Quite a few people prefer to be separated, because they are disappointed,” said Sadek A. Hussein, a Basra native who is a professor in the college of agriculture at the University of Basra, and who speaks with the mildness characteristic of southern Iraq. The trait is refreshing in itself, in a country better known for its firebrands, chatterboxes and just plain loudmouths

Some members of the local governing council recently went as far as trying to impose a 10 percent tax on oil revenue from the south, but they were stymied by legal barriers.

If southerners cannot put a stop to the great sucking sound to the north, many would like to see an international boundary between them and the capital. ”They see all of the good things going to Baghdad,” said Ramzi, a translator who asked that only his first name be used…

[T]he south of Iraq is just that, the south of Iraq, with no wider ethnic entanglements to worry about, just a close religious affinity with neighboring Iran, which, like southern Iraq, is overwhelmingly Shiite…

And Zuhair Kubba, a board member of the Basra Chamber of Commerce, said that, in contrast to the xenophobia dogging other regions of Iraq, Basra’s history made it likely to welcome foreign investment.

”They have a port, and being a port, they have experience with foreigners,” said Mr. Kubba, a follower of the largely pacifist and apolitical Sheikhi branch of Shiite Islam, whose holiest cleric, Sayyed Ali Al-Mousawi, is based in a Basra mosque.

Some foreign companies, including Kellogg, Brown & Root, the Halliburton subsidiary that is repairing parts of Iraq’s oil industry under American government contracts, are already listening. The company is moving its center of operations from the insurgency-ridden streets of Baghdad to the south, said Ray Villegas, a general manager for the company, and not just to be closer to its field work, which is mainly in the south.

This is the place you want to be,” Mr. Villegas said. ”It’s much different down here. You have flat open land, so you have a lot of visibility. We don’t have the day-to-day traffic problems that you experience up in Baghdad, so the opportunity is much less for insurgents to act.”

Most of all, he said, ”we’ve found that the Iraqis here are much more willing and accommodating to approach the Americans.”

Quite a fall–from Glanz’s description of the “mildness characteristic” of Basra residents who demonstrate a “clear southern preference for profit over politics to Friedman’s more recent discovery of “sectarian theocrats, Islamo-fascists and local and regional tyrants” running Basra.
This is an intra-Shiite battle that pits Sistani, on the one hand, againt Sadr and Yaqubi on the other, with the oil weath of Basra caught in between. This battle will surely the test the Right Zionist hope for a US-Shiite alliance like nothing else.

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