Basra: the Virtue of Autonomy?

Posted by Cutler on June 13, 2006
Iran, Iraq

The New York Times has published a report from Basra today under the headline “Oil, Politics, and Bloodshed Corrupt an Iraqi City.” A quote from the article is also the “Quote of the Day” in the Times.

Quotation of the Day

“I cannot talk with you. I haven’t joined a party and no militia is protecting me.”

SAJID SAAD HASSAN, a professor, on lawlessness in Basra, Iraq.

Funny thing about that quote: it isn’t exactly “of the day.” The same quote appeared 10 days ago–along with another colorful lead quote from a British officer–in the Saturday, June 3, 2006 edition of the International Herald Tribune under the headline “State Has ‘Melted,’ Leaving Basra in Chaos.”

Thrown in amidst the recycled Basra vignettes, the Times seems to have actually either broken some news or quietly retracted an earlier reporting error. The issue involves the political spectrum of Shiite views regarding regional political and economic autonomy for the oil-rich, Shiite-dominated southern Iraqi city of Basra.

Aqeel Talib, a senior member of the [Fadhila] party, argues that a disagreement over federalism is one of the issues dividing the parties. The party and its two main competitors — the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa Party — all had different visions for a southern Shiite region.

In Fadhila’s model, Basra Province, the only one it controls, would stand on its own. “We as Fadhila, we want to make our province our own region,” Mr. Talib said. “We have two million people, an airport, a port and oil — everything we need to be a state.”

In a previous post on Basra politics, I cited an April 25, 2005 New York Times report by Edward Wong–published under the headline “Top Shiite Politician Joins Call for Autonomous South Iraq“:

Some Shiites have supported creating a region out of Al Basra Province and neighboring provinces, while others have pushed for a much larger region that would also encompass the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

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.

Ayatollah Muhammad Yacoubi is the leader of the Fadhila party (translated as the Virtue Party).

So, what exactly is the political lineup on regional autonomy in Basra? Has Fadhila changed its position? Or is one of the New York Times articles incorrect?

The significance of the issue cannot be overstated: if Yacoubi and/or Sadr are Shiite nationalists who oppose Iranian influence in Iraq and support a centralized government in Baghdad, this tends to align them far more with the Sunni Arab insurgency then it does with either the Shiite political forces associated with SCIRI or with Iraqi Kurds who seek similar autonomous control of the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk.

If, on the other hand, Yacoubi and/or Sadr support Basra regional autonomy (in some form or another), then this tends to tilt the political balance toward a sectarian and fragmented–rather than Sunni Arab nationalist–future for Iraq. Yacoubi and Sadr can swing the balance of power either way.

For that reason, I note with great interest a very important post by Juan Cole at Informed Comment.

Shiite Iraqi clerical leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim is multi-tasking, according to al-Zaman [Ar.]/ AFP Al-Hakim first went to Najaf. There, he consulted with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and 2 other grand ayatollahs. Then he met with young Shiite nationalist Muqtada al-Sadr. Its sources say that the two discussed ways of calming the fighting and tensions between the Badr Corps fighters and the Mahdi Army in the southern port city of Basra, Iraq’s sole window to the outside world and sole secure avenue for the export of petroleum.

Then al-Hakim went off to Tehran. His trip has two purposes, according to the Baghdad daily. One is to mediate between the Americans and the Iranians over the nuclear crisis. The other is to explore with the Iranian government how it might be helpful in quieting Basra, and to consult with the ayatollahs in Tehran over al-Hakim’s plan to form regional confederacies out of provinces in the Shiite south of Iraq.

Did Sadr give Hakim any kind of green light on regional autonomy for Basra before Hakim made his trek to Iran?

1 Comment to Basra: the Virtue of Autonomy?

  • I still tend to think of Muqtada as seeking what marxists would call ‘proletarian solidarity’ with the grassroots Sunni resistance (by ‘grassroots’ I mean nationalistic to the point of not being primarily motivated either for or against religion). I think this is why the occupation sees him as such a menace, since their tactic is a divide-and-rule one, in which the Badrists are helping, albeit for reasons which include pro-Iranianism. This brings us back to the gamble involved in the neocon project of creating fractionated minority régimes.

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