Baghdad, Asharq Al-Awsat – The concrete walls that surround the compound of the al Fadhila party (Islamic Virtue party) compound resemble those that enclose the fortified Green Zone, which contains the Iraqi government headquarters and parliament, and the American embassy, among other official buildings. However, the Green Zone has not been entirely invincible to attacks; a rocket landed in the heart of the compound back in 2004.
Over the past few weeks, ferocious clashes broke out between forces affiliated to al Fadhila party and the Mehdi army led by Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr. The confrontations resulted in the deaths of various people on both sides, while buildings and offices affiliated to the two parties were destroyed.
And yet, the reason behind the battle was a simple one: the governing al Fadhila party replaced the head of the local electricity department, who had been an al Sadr supporter.
Mediators from the tribes and other political parties rushed to prevent the vicious conflict, which was susceptible to snowballing, and finally succeeded after tremendous efforts to curb the fighting. However, in the words of Abu Ali al Baaj, a mid-level Mehdi army commander, “the tensions cannot be completely buried.”
Beyond the pretense of democratic institutions, including councils and the police force, Basra; Iraq’s second-largest city with an estimated 2.6 million inhabitants, has been seized by rival militias that mistrust one another. Oil, wealth, posts, military might and clout are the main variables in the current competition simmering in the city due to the absence of a state and government.
The recent withdrawal of the British forces from the joint headquarters [shared with Iraqi police] in Basra and its subsequent looting by gunmen is but a prelude to what is to come if the forces were to fully withdraw. The heads of the tribes were unable to contain the situation, and likewise; the Iraqi army could not act decisively to put an end to the pillaging.
The residents of Basra fear the inactivity of late, deeming it to be the calm before the storm following the city’s transformation into a volatile minefield at the hands of the conflicting political groups.
Among the most conspicuous preparations being made are those undertaken by the Sadrists who are clearly trying to secure domination following the departure of the British forces. Meanwhile, the governor of Basra [Mohammed al Waili] refuses to comply with the governmental decision for his dismissal [Nouri al Maliki had fired the Fadhila governor of Basra]. Meanwhile, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) rushed to bring Basra over to its side amidst Jund al Samaa (Army of Heaven) conflicts erupting on the scene. The crisis between the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions and the ministry [of oil] has escalated, while Iran seeks to consolidate the presence of the Quds Force by recruiting more youth in southern Iraq.
However, the recent British pullout has been regarded by some in the city as a defeat rather than an organized withdrawal. A resident of Basra told Asharq Al-Awsat, “The distinguishing factor in the Sadrist trend over the past few months has been its distance away from the struggle over power, which is currently taking place between the other Shia parties. This is despite its capability of seizing control over all the state institutions – as it proved last year.”
“All the Mehdi army actions were focused on pursuing the British forces and inflicting casualty losses whether through bombing or indirect gunfire aimed at British bases. This is what prompted them to withdraw, and is what the youthful cleric Muqtada al Sadr has deemed a victory for his side,” said another resident.
However, observers from the leadership of other Shia parties regard this ‘victory’ as a serious threat to their interests and power since it means that the Mehdi army, which is comprised of scores of bloodthirsty vengeful youth who seek to impose their will on the local scene, emerges dominant. This is especially so in light of the upcoming governorate council elections.
The International Crisis Group has described the militias in Basra by saying that they appear to be stronger than ever before. In a recently issued report, the group also said that attempts made to set up legitimate and effective institutions able to distribute the sources of wealth and abide by the law had failed miserably. Also unsuccessful was the attempt to ensure a peaceful transition on a local level. The International Crisis Group upheld that the political arena in Basra was in the grip of players who are embroiled in a bloody battle over the sources of wealth, which serves to undermine what remains of governmental institutions.
According to military advisor to US President George Bush, Stephen Biddle, who is also a Senior Fellow in Defense Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and distinguished contributor to the British newspaper ‘The Sunday Times’, the militias in Basra, “are seeking the defeat of the British forces, the withdrawal will be harsh and disruptive.”
For his part, Sheikh Aws al Khafaji, a senior al Sadr aide, sees that Iranian intelligence is implicated in acts of sabotage in southern Iraq. “The source of this information was the al Sadr Bureau, and the gist of it is that Iranian intelligence services have set up an operations room under an officer named Mohammed Taqwa with the aim of destabilizing southern Iraq,” he said. “The Iranians,” he continued, “have recruited a large number of security officials in the area, specifically those who joined the army and the police as part of the militia re-integration plan. Others have assumed posts as a result of appointments made by the hegemonic parties.”
Observers believe that al Khafaji’s statements reveal Iran’s fear that the Sadrists could assume unilateral control of Basra following the British pullout, placing Shia sects loyal to it in imminent danger.
A university professor who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity told Asharq Al-Awsat that the recent chain of events in Basra, including the arrest of Ali Musa Daqduq (a senior Hezbollah operative) last March in a residential neighborhood in Lebanon, confirms that Iran is not satisfied with militias and traditional religious trends loyal to it. It is striving towards assembling armed groups in the same vein as the Quds force and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), he said.
According to the Associated Press, US military spokesman in Iraq, Brig-Gen Kevin Bergner stated that the Quds force is comprised of the IRGC elite and that within the framework of its efforts to create an Iraqi version of Hezbollah to confront the US and Iraqi forces, it has sent in elements to train and organize the militias in Iraq.
Bergner disclosed, “our intelligence has revealed that senior Iranian figures in the leadership are aware of these activities… it is difficult to imagine that the Supreme Guide, Ali Khamenei, is unaware of it.” He added that the expansive Quds force program had been exposed during the interrogation with chief Hezbollah figure Ali Musa Daqduq and the Iraqi Qais al Khazaali who were arrested during security raids that were part of a broader campaign launched in Basra last March. Confiscated documents also affirm the same thing.
Bergner disclosed that the [Quds] force provides US $3 million a month to the Iraqi militias, in addition to training them to manufacture explosives and conduct raids and abductions in three camps that are situated outside the Iranian capital Tehran.
Among the compelling confessions of Daqduq, according to a high-level source at the Iraqi Interior Ministry, is that Iran has instructed select groups among the militias to bomb Shia religious gatherings and holy places and shrines with the intention of causing dissension and spreading chaos and strife. Other methods include using children in terrorist operations and recruiting them to serve political ends.
But the diverse Iraqi parties can sense this difficult position, which is the reason they are moving swiftly to seize control of the deteriorating situation. Head of the Fadhila bloc in parliament, Hassan al Shimiri said, “Political conflicts exist and they have started to manifest as a mutual violence between the political forces in Basra and in the southern governorates.”
Al Shimiri told Asharq Al-Awsat that the absence of British troops on the ground in southern Iraq will lead to the escalation of conflict between the political forces. This conflict takes on the form of sectarian strife between the components of the central force there. He added that the solution would be for the British forces to postpone their [complete] pullout and to assist in building and consolidating the Iraqi security forces in the meantime whilst announcing a schedule for withdrawal in the near future.
The Iraqi MP said, “The presence of these forces assisted in enforcing the law and safeguarding the state’s sovereignty to some extent. They have also contributed in maintaining security and stability – albeit relatively speaking. The withdrawal of the [British] forces signals the likelihood of the spread of conflict in light of the clashes between the various political forces trying to consolidate their influence in certain cities and governorates.”
Moreover, al Shimiri confirmed that the reason for this strife is the struggle over power and influence in the local decision-making process, given that the political situation in Iraq marks the beginning of a new era – one that can be formed by the new power that dominates the political stage.
Regarding the efficacy of using dialogue and debate to resolve the crises between the various conflicting forces, al Shimiri said: “dialogue exists among the various political forces; however the situation has reached a deadlock, which means that the matter has slipped through the hands of politicians to manifest as clashes on the streets. Also, some forces lack regulation, which allows them to control matters through impulsive acts. The evidence of this is that a considerable amount of the diverse leaderships have distanced themselves and disowned figures and actions in movements affiliated to them.” Muqtada al Sadr’s recent freeze on the Mehdi army’s activities after the events in Karbala is another case in point.
According to independent deputies in the Iraqi parliament who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, there is a fierce competition between the main forces in the political arena: SIIC, the Sadrists and the Fadhila party. Clashes between the armed factions of these parties are frequent and often break out on the streets. Usually they do not end until after there is a ceasefire agreement between the two sides or after the US forces intervene to dismantle the conflict. However, the results in the aftermath are only temporary and the fighting is fast renewed.
Earlier last month Khalil Jalil Hamza, the governor of Muthanna province, was assassinated on his way from Rumaitha to Samawa. An explosive device detonated in his convoy killing him and Muthanna’s Police Chief, Major-General Khaled Hassan. They were on their way to attend the funeral of one of the tribal chiefs in Samawa. Mohammed Ali al Hassani, the governor of al Qadisiyyah was also assassinated later on 20 August.
A spokesman from the US embassy in Baghdad told Asharq Al-Awsat that the conflict in the different provinces in southern Iraq was not simply about power struggles but that there were also social and political conflicts. He told Asharq Al-Awsat that, “the Iraqi government is taking important measures to counter and confront the parties attempting to destabilize the security and order in all the provinces in general, and in Basra in particular, by appointing a new security official to lead the security forces there. There are also attempts being made to resolve the pending political issues through dialogue between all the parties involved, including the governor and the local municipality.”
The US diplomat also added that the British continue to follow up and regularly communicate directly with government officials in Basra, furthermore stressing that the British will remain until the conditions were appropriate for a full withdrawal.
Meanwhile, Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al Askari has affirmed that the Iraqi army forces replacing the British troops are capable of addressing all the potential conflicts and rebellions that could arise in Basra. He further confirmed that they possess the competence to enforce the law around the city following the departure of the British forces. He added that a new military force was being formed and that its task is to restore the sovereignty of the city.
“The fears expressed by some parties that chaos will reign in the southern governorates following the departure of the British forces [will not happen]. It is something we have planned for and we are readily equipped with the required solutions for it,” he said.