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The Enigmatic Second Battle of Basra

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)

26 March 2008

On the surface, the story may look plausible enough. A provincial city rich in oil degenerates into mafia-style conditions affecting the security of citizens as well as the national oil revenue; the central government intervenes to clean up. This is how many in the media have been reporting the latest clashes between government forces and militiamen in Basra: the Maliki government has launched a security operation with the single aim of getting rid of unruly militias. Pundits with ties to the Bush administration have added that these are essential “preparations” for this autumn’s provincial elections, or moves to forestall Iranian influence in Basra, or both.

But on closer inspection, there are problems in these accounts. Perhaps most importantly, there is a discrepancy between the description of Basra as a city ruled by militias (in the plural) – which is doubtless correct – and the battlefield facts of the ongoing operations which seem to target only one of these militia groups, the Mahdi Army loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr. Surely, if the aim was to make Basra a safer place, it would have been logical to do something to also stem the influence of the other militias loyal to the local competitors of the Sadrists, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), as well as the armed groups allied to the Fadila party (which have dominated the oil protection services for a long time). But so far, only Sadrists have complained about attacks by government forces.

Others may suggest that rather than having to do with the rule of law, this is part of a wider operation in which Maliki in alliance with ISCI are doing their best to marginalize their political enemies locally – in preparation for local elections in October 2008, or with a view to dominate the process of forming federal entities (which could start next month, in April). Maybe it has been supported by Washington, as compensation for the bitter pill which Dick Cheney brought with him in the shape of a demand for early provincial elections? But whereas that sort of interpretation certainly seemed valid during the first battle of Basra (when Maliki arrived in Basra in late May 2006 and enforced a new security regime that was applauded by ISCI and denounced by Fadila), it does not quite make sense today.

Firstly, if the motive was the provincial elections or the federalism question, the target should have been Fadila and not the Sadrists. Basra is an exceedingly complex city (Shiite factions, Shaykhis, Christians, secularists, Sunnis, tribal groups etc.), and the overall electoral potential of the Sadrists there is probably considerably less than what many analysts have predicted. In the federalism question, the Sadrists are entirely on the sidelines, with the director of the Sadrist office in the city recently complaining that he was being kept in the dark about the project to make Basra a stand-alone federal unit (as propagated by Fadila and some of the secular leaders in the city in a scheme that challenges ISCI’s vision of a single Shiite federal entity).

Secondly, there have been too many recent instances of conflict between Maliki and ISCI on these issues for that interpretation to make perfect sense. Increasingly, Maliki has associated himself with a more centralist current in Iraqi parliamentary politics, sometimes challenging ISCI directly, as seems to have happened during the process of adopting a law for the existing (non-federated) governorates. Whereas ISCI since early 2008 has been more outspoken in its attack on any interference by the central government in local affairs (much on the Kurdish pattern), Maliki has often defended the vision of a reasonably coherent and potent central government. In early March, ISCI demonstrators criticised Maliki’s two security chiefs in Basra, General Mohan al-Firayji and Abd al-Jalil Khalaf, the police commander.

A less obvious explanation that may nevertheless be worth pursuing is Nuri al-Maliki’s attempts to build an independent power base in the security services, to bolster his stature as prime minister (which ISCI repeatedly has attacked), and to compensate for his Daawa party’s lack of strong militias. While the media over the last days have reported disagreements between Maliki and his two top security officials in Basra (and even suggested their imminent dismissal), and despite the fact that top brass commanders from Baghdad are now in charge of operations, it may be more significant that for several weeks, both General Mohan and Khalaf (the police chief) have been talking about a forthcoming crackdown on militias (and on some occasions have singled out the Sadrists for criticism.) Prior to the current manoeuvres (codenamed “the attack of the knights” or sawlat al-fursan) there were more limited operations against Mahdist followers of Ahmad al-Hasan in Basra back in January. Success in this kind of moves against internal Shiite enemies could conceivably make Maliki more immune against challenges to his premiership from ISCI (and also an attractive partner in other governorates where the Sadrists are a more formidable challenge), but it does not resolve the contradiction between his own centralism (where the Sadrists would be a logical partner) and the decentralism of ISCI. Also, the conciliatory statements by several Sadrist parliamentarians and directors of the provincial Sadrist offices in the first part of 2008 suggested that many of them would prefer politics to battlefield; it seems like a miscalculation by Maliki to spurn these overtures.

Still, there are probably few spots on this planet where the search for mono-causality is more futile than Basra. One key player that has so far refrained from showing its hand is Fadila, which controls the governor position. Back in 2007 the party frequently criticised Maliki’s security operatives in Basra, at one point even signalling reluctance to the prospect of a handover from the British to the Iraqi forces. (The party may have feared that Maliki’s attempt to oust them from positions of power locally – an attempt that was also supported by ISCI – would come to fruition as soon as the British forces were gone.) But then, after the December 2007 handover to Iraqi control and a subsequent “pact” between Basra’s main political parties, the surface of local politics turned remarkably calm for a while. In January 2008, Fadila publicly supported the crackdown on the Mahdists, but the party has made no statement yet on the recent operations (although it is reported that the Basra governor, Muhammad al-Waili, has recently met with Maliki) and very recently reiterated its preference for a non-sectarian form of small-scale federalism.

Perhaps the most useful approach is to compare the narratives of the parties involved. Maliki says this is a clampdown on illegal militias involved in “oil smuggling”. ISCI also highlights oil smuggling and expresses support for “the state”. The British and the Americans seem to agree with this (even if it is truly risky to engage in this sort of thing on the eve of the Petraeus/Crocker hearings next month). The Sadrists complain about highhandedness by a government allied to “the occupation”. This could all suggest that Maliki and ISCI – fundamental ideological tensions notwithstanding – have temporarily agreed to disagree about the question of federalism and instead resolved that the Sadrists are their common enemy. But until Fadila speaks, we will not know the true significance of the second battle of Basra, what the implications are for the local balance of power, and what this in turn means in terms of the impact on the federalism issue and the question of Iranian influence.

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