BASRA, Iraq, (Reuters) – Iraq’s prime minister called for a strong central state on Friday in his first visit to the southern city of Basra since ordering his troops to sweep militia off its streets in heavy fighting last year.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has used the success of a military operation last year against gunmen who controlled Basra’s streets as a campaign theme to bolster his Dawa Party in provincial elections at the end of this month.
In Basra, as in much of the Shi’ite south, many residents want to win more autonomy from Baghdad. But the prime minister has lately made vocal appeals for a stronger central state. “The state will be built on the basis of centralism and unionism,” he said in his speech. “I’ll say frankly we want a strong state, a state which is able to protect Iraqi soil.” He urged residents of the southern oil hub to put last year’s fighting, in which hundreds were killed, behind them.
“What has happened, the disputes, the clashes; let us fill those rifts with unity,” Maliki told 2,000 cheering supporters at Basra city’s football stadium. “Let us not look to the past. He who embraces his brother is the real Iraqi.”
In calling for a strong central state, he took an implicit swipe at rival Shi’ite parties that favour autonomy for Basra itself or for the entire Shi’ite south.
Basra’s local government is currently in the hands of the rival Fadhila party, a Shi’ite group which favours autonomy for the province. Fadhila suffered a blow this week when Iraq’s electoral commission ruled backers had failed to get enough signatures to mount a referendum on autonomy.
Maliki’s biggest Shi’ite rivals, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (ISCI), want autonomy for a broad swathe of southern Iraq, including Basra.
The prime minister’s image has been strengthened since he sent his security forces into Basra at the end of March last year to wrest control from black-masked Mehdi Army militiamen loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
The eventual success of that operation won Maliki praise across Iraq’s ethno-sectarian divide. Other crackdowns on southern towns and on Sunni Islamist al Qaeda militants in the north last year have further strengthened his hand.
Once considered vacillating and weak, Maliki now faces critics who call him authoritarian.
With a week to go before provincial elections, he has been touring the country aiming to win more power for his Dawa Party, a Shi’ite group which has little clout in the provinces.
Basra is now largely quiet and citizens say streets are free of the Shi’ite Islamists who used to bomb music shops and threaten to kill women seen in public without a veil. “We are with you, Maliki, we are with you,” the crowd shouted, kicking up plumes of dust as they got more excited. “I am happy to see Basra enjoys security. The difference is huge between my visit to Basra when it was suffering serious security woes and today,” Maliki said, standing next to a pool of blood from a sheep that had been slaughtered in his honour.