Basra v. Persia?

Posted by Cutler on June 15, 2006
Iran, Iraq

Juan Cole at Informed Comment has posted a very important discussion of recent tension between Shiites in Basra and the Iranian government:

An angry crowd of Iraqi Shiites attacked the Iranian Basra consulate on Wednesday, protesting an insult aired on Iranian television against Shaikh Mahmud al-Sarkhi al-Hasani, a popular Basra preacher. They set fire to an annex of the building, and black smoke billowed above it. Iraqi Shiite leaders said that they feared further violence if Iran did not apologize. Many Basra Shiites still hold a grudge against Iran for the latter’s shelling of the city during the Iran-Iraq War, 1980-1988. Sadrist Iraqis in particular denounce the dominance of Persian Shiism over Iraqi Shiism. The crowd planted an Iraqi flag on the building.

Is the Bush administration supporting these anti-Iranian demonstrators? One might imagine so. But if you look closely at Bush administration policies in Iraq, it sure looks like the Bush administration continues to back the pro-Iranian SCIRI party against anti-Iranian Iraqi nationalist Shiites in Basra.

In a series of recent posts (HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE), I have been trying to make some sense of Basra politics–especially in light of Prime Minister Maliki’s highly publicized declaration of a “state of emergency” in Basra. What are the stakes?

In the oil-rich city of Basra, political control is crucial and from early on in the war there has been talk about various plans for Shiite regional autonomy centered in Basra. In most instances, such talk has also been viewed as part of an emergent regional alliance between Iraqi and Iranian Shiites. One recent Reuters report went so far as to suggest that the Maliki crackdown on Basra was, in essence, a battle to win control of Basra away from Iran.

“There are local and international battles for Basra. Locally it is between Fadhila and other groups while regionally it is between Iran and other forces, like the British.”

By all appearances, Maliki’s “state of emergency”–for which Maliki has earned considerable White House praise–seems directed at the political influence two political forces in Basra: Moqtada al-Sadr and the Fadhila/Virtue party.

Here is the mystery: Sadr and Fadhila are often depicted as being the two Shiite forces that oppose Shiite regional autonomy. See, for example, an August 2005 New York Times article.

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.

Yacoubi is the leader of the Fadhila party.

A more recent June 13, 2006 New York Times article “Oil, Politics, and Bloodshed Corrupt an Iraqi City” tellsl a somewhat different story:

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.”

Does Fadhila favor a strong, centralized Iraqi state, as initially reported? If so, one would think that on this question in would have quite a bit in common with nationalist Sunni Arab political forces. Certainly Sadrists have, at times, recognized this common ground.

Or does Fadhila favor regional autonomy for Iraqi Shiites?

The relationship between Fadhila and Iran may be crucial in this respect. Anti-Iranian sentiment would seem to tilt Fadhila toward an Iraqi nationalist position. The recent reports of tension between Basra Shiites and Iran would seem to support this view.

One additional tidbit that points in the direction of anti-Iranian sentiment among Basra Shiites come from a January 25, 2005 Washington Post report, “Political Islam Put to the Test in Southern Iraq“:

The question of Iranian support is debilitating for Basra’s Islamic parties, in particular for the Supreme Council, which fought on the Iranian side during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and, as is bitterly recalled by some Iraqi veterans, oversaw prisoner-of-war camps. Some Supreme Council officials in Basra still speak Arabic with a Persian inflection, and many residents — both religious and secular — punctuate their conversations with rumors about the involvement of Iran’s intelligence service in southern Iraq.

One rival Islamic party, an offshoot of Sadr’s movement known as Fudhala, is campaigning on a slogan that is a not-too-subtle jab at the Supreme Council’s perceived leanings: “Born in Iraq, Iraqi financed, with Iraqi leadership.”

If the Bush administration is full of praise for the SCIRI-backed Iraqi government of Prime Minister Maliki for its attempt to drive an anti-Iranian Shiite political party from power in Basra, what does that say about Bush administration attitudes toward Iranian regional influence?

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