Basra Crude

Posted by Cutler on June 07, 2006

Tracking Iraqi domestic politics can feel like following a soap opera: if you don’t already know the characters and background, it can be difficult to jump in and make sense of it all, even if you arrive at a crucial, emotionally-charged moment. So it is with recent political developments in the oil-rich southern Iraqi city of Basra. (For a bit of background to the current post, see my previous long post on Basra and a short follow-up post.)

Rarely has the news coverage of Iraqi domestic politics been more frustrating than in the case of Basra oil politics. This is hardly surprising in the case of the mainstream media, but a bit unsettling when the “alternative” press mangles the story in such a way that it leaves the reader more confused than ever.

I have in mind an article published by the Inter Press Service News Agency. I’m a huge fan of IPS writer Jim Lobe and I generally think IPS generates very useful reporting. There is also some excellent and original reporting in a May 26 article by Aaron Glantz and Alaa Hassan entitled “Basra Begins to Fall Apart.” But a few key facts are botched and the context is so vague that the entire report tends to be very misleading.

The British military — whose 8,000 soldiers in Iraq control Basra — were considered by many to be more humane than their American counterparts.

But when thousands of residents took to the streets earlier this month to protest high unemployment and corruption in the governor’s office, the British attacked the demonstrators with helicopters. Fighters responded.

“They shot down a helicopter,” As’aad Kareem, president of the Iraqi oil workers union in Basra told IPS. “It was real resistance. They shot it down because the British were supporting the governor and shooting at the people in the demonstration. And the governor didn’t stop the British from bombing the demonstration, and so that’s his responsibility also“…

Kareem said lack of water and electricity are not the only reasons for the tensions. “The government in Baghdad was giving a lot of support and money to Basra, but the governor (Mohammed al-Waili) was misusing it, and that led to violence and a lot of strikes, including walkouts by the military and police,” he said…

Fadil el-Sharaa, spokesman for Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr, says British forces and the governor (who comes from the Shia group, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq) want to blame the killings on sectarian conflict.

But that is not the case, he said. “What happened in Basra is that Ayatollah al-Sistani’s representative talked about the corruption created by the governor and his administration, which caused the governor to say that the religious offices were responsible for all the violence in Basra and that we are dividing people against themselves.”

El-Sharaa added: “They should be more responsible in their proclamations.. Now the problem has been solved by the Sadr office. We sent our representative to Basra, and we held a meeting of the two groups and tried to solve the problem peacefully.”

Glantz and Hassan provide the correct name of the Basra Provincial Governor, but every other news source I’ve ever read (see, for example, this May 26 Reuters report) says Waili (more commonly “Waeli” or “Waelli” in the mainstream press) comes from the Fadhila party–NOT Fadhila’s major Basra rival, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).The article cites very serious accusations against the governor (Waeli): that unidentified demonstrators were protesting “corruption in the governor’s office”; that the governor “didn’t stop the British from bombing the demostration”; that “the British were supporting the governor”; that the governor was “misusing” money given to Basra and therefore became the target of “strikes” and “walkouts by the military and police.”

In the current climate–when Basra Provincial governor Waeli is being criticized by the British and Iraqi governments–it would be very helpful to know more about the political perspective of the accuser.

Indeed, if there have been demonstrators against corruption in Waeli’s office they might well be people aligned with SCIRI. As the Washington Post reported on June 1, 2006, Fadhila ousted SCIRI in January 2005 local elections for the Basra Provincial Council. SCIRI responded to the defeat with a boycott of the Council. SCIRI and Waeli are locked in battle.

Who, then, is the accuser? “As’aad Kareem, president of the Iraqi oil workers union in Basra.” Anti-war activists who try to follow labor union politics in Iraq (no easy task) might be familiar with Hassan Jumaa Awad al Assadi, President of the General Union of Oil Employees in Basra. Some of his speeches against the US Occupation (and against privatization of the Iraqi oil industry) have been translated by Gilbert Achcar and circulate on the internet. But try doing an internet search on As’aad Kareem. I could find nothing, apart from the reference by Glantz and Hassan in the article under discussion. I’m not suggesting he doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter; I’m simply saying that it might be helpful to have some context, especially given the tenor of his allegations against Governor Waeli.

Is As’aad Kareem a SCIRI-linked labor leader? Or, more likely perhaps, a Sadrist labor leader?

There was a British helicopter shot down in Basra. It was “real resistance.” But who does As’aad Kareem intend to credit with such resistance? Is As’aad Kareem suggesting that SCIRI shot down British helicopter? Highly unlikely.

One May 8, 2006 report from The Guardian suggested a more direct link to Sadr’s Mahdi Army:

As soldiers from the British army’s Quick Reaction Force got to the scene, they were confronted by stones thrown from the crowd. A minority, chanted support for the Mahdi army, the militia of the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and was armed with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and petrol bombs, British defence sources said…

A commander of the Mahdi Army, Jassan Khalaf, was reported yesterday as saying that his men brought down the helicopter and threatened more attacks.

Has there been tension between Sadrists and Fadhila? Absolutely. Is it possible that Sadrists were demonstrating against Waeli? Yes, it is certainly possible. But this is big and important news and needs to be made clear. If Glantz and Hassan are reporting on serious friction between Sadrists and Fadhila, this is crucial information that may even help explain why the Sadrists have thus far raised no public objections in the media regarding the Iraqi government decision to crack down on unrest in Basra. (In my previous post, I discuss a scenario where Sadr and Maliki are aligned against Fadhila and Governor Waeli.)

Serious tension between Sadrists and Fadhila runs against the grain of an earlier September 2005 September 2005 report of a growing alliance between Fadhila leader Ayatollah Yaqubi and Sadr.

As’aad Kareem suggests that the “British were supporting the governor.” This is also an important claim but it is hard to know how to weigh its accuracy. If the British were–or are–supporting Waeli, this is also big, breaking news. It may be true, but it certainly requires some explanation since Waeli has had a rocky relationship with the British.

The current indications are very mixed about the relationship between Waeli and the British. Aftering severing all ties with the British in January 2006, Waeli apparently tried to patch things up with the British. According to the May 8, 2006 report from The Guardian:

Basra’s governor, Muhammad al-Waeli, agreed yesterday to resume cooperation with the British, which he broke off four months ago, in an effort to defuse tension.

Was that “yesterday” the day before the helicopter was downed? Or was it a response to the attack on the helicopter?

A June 1, 2006 report from The Guardian also sends mixed signals about the state of British relations with Waeli. On the one hand, the article tends to undermine and general claim of an alliance between Waeli and the British:

The British and Iraqi governments have often clashed with the governor of Basra, Muhammad al-Waelli, whom they regard as part of the problem.

Indeed, it would not be surprising if the entire Maliki “state of emergency” in Basra was aimed at ousting Waeli. According to Reuters, the whole Basra crackdown was formally initiated–under pressure from the UK–by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

Talabani, a Kurd, issued a statement urging Maliki to despatch senior officials to Basra to calm the situation. He said it should have wide-ranging powers, including being “authorised to dismiss and appoint” officials.

But the June 1, 2006 report from The Guardian also includes quotes from Fadhila officials who do not seem particularly upset by news of the Maliki “state of emergency.” One might expect them to sound either alarmed or upset if it looked like the entire crackdown was aimed at dismissing the Fadhila-linked governor.

Assan Abdul Jabbar, an aide to Mr Waelli, said yesterday: “The focus on Basra by the media and the rulers in Baghdad is not justified and has a political motivation behind it. They want to divert attention from the bad situations in Baghdad and the Sunni triangle.”

Mahdi al Nasi’a, a senior member of the Fadhila party, one of the factions engaged in the power struggle, accused Iraq’s prime minister of exaggerating the problems in Basra. “These efforts will not help the city, but they may indeed open the door to a crisis in security,” he said.

He said Fadhila would work with any recommendations put forward by the government “provided they were legitimate and focused on improving services to ordinary citizens of Basra”.

Apart from the prediction that the crackdown “may… open the door to a crisis in security,” these comments by Mahdi al Nasi’a and Assan Abdul Jabbar hardly amount to a declaration of war (“Fadhila would work with any recommendations…”). Such reporting gives some credence to the idea that Fadhila aspires to good relations with the British.

What if Assan Abdul Jabbar is right and the “state of emergency” is not an attack on Fadhila but a publicity stunt intended to “divert attention from the bad situations in Baghdad and the Sunni triangle”? (In my previous post, I called this the “Maliki Media Magic” scenario.)

Or, what if Sadr has been silent and Fadhila relatively calm because–UK pressure notwithstanding–Maliki really did try to initiate a “peace mission” (what I called the “Solidarity Forever” scenario in my previous post) and Sadr and Waeli are taking a wait-and-see approach?

If the Glantz and Hassan article can be taken to signal tenstion between the Sadrists and Waeli, then perhaps one side is targeted for attack but not the other. Who is more likely aligned a Maliki crackdown? Waeli and Fadhila who left the Maliki coalition in protest after being recently stripped of control of the oil ministry and now threatens to cripple oil exports? Or the Sadrists of Basra who claim credit for shooting down British helicopters?

My hunch is that British and UK forces–along with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani–are gunning for Sadr and Waeli, with our without the enthusiastic support of Maliki who still depends on Sadrists to maintain his government coalition.

The key to the Basra crackdown may turn on Basra Crude–the politics of oil. It is for this reason that it has become urgent to know more about Basra oil workers. Where do oil workers stand on the question of regional autonomy for the oil industry?

Where does Fadhila stand? Where do the Sadrists stand?
Where does “As’aad Kareem, president of the Iraqi oil workers union in Basra” stand? Where does “Hassan Jumaa Awad al Assadi, President of the General Union of Oil Employees in Basra” stand?

Finally, where do Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and Khalilzad stand?

UPDATE:  from Juan Cole at Informed Comment:
Al-Zaman reports that the Sunni Arabs of Basra are mostly forced to stay at home, going out only when absolutely necessary, for fear of being assassinated or kidnapped. They are virtual prisoners in their homes…
The Arab League is preparing to send a commission to Basra, at the request of the Sunni Arabs. (Arab League member states have as their citizens mostly Sunni Arabs.)

Meanwhile, al-Zaman says, hundreds of British troops have spread through Basra neighborhoods, arresting persons on its list, who belong to the Mahdi Army or Iraqi military intelligence. (The latter in Basra was presumably mostly recruited from the Badr Corps paramilitary of the [hard line Shiite] Supreme Council).

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