BASRA, Iraq,(Reuters) – Police and soldiers set up checkpoints and searched cars in Iraq’s second city on Thursday in a first test of new Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s ability to restore stability with an “iron fist” security crackdown.
Maliki ordered the army onto the streets of Basra on Wednesday for a one-month state of emergency to show Iraqis he means business about tackling insecurity, 11 days after his government of national unity was sworn in.
Basra, 550 km (340 miles) south of Baghdad, should be an early indication of whether he can back his words with action after previous Iraqi leaders failed to ease a raging Sunni insurgency and sectarian violence threatening vital oil exports.
But some Basra residents said his security forces face a complex network of gangs and assassins that includes Saddam Hussein loyalists and warring Shi’ite militias who thrive in the bloody chaos of an oil city that provides much of Iraq’s income.
“All the assassinations carried out by gangs are done by former regime members and armed men who belong to some parties. Their goal is to destroy security to serve their interests,” said merchant Jawaad Hassan.
Checkpoints have popped up across Basra, with the police in the city centre and army units on the outskirts inspecting every car that passes by, witnesses said.
“We have orders to be on full alert for a month. There will be constant patrols. We have orders to pull over cars with shaded windows. Unauthorised weapons will be taken,” said police captain Ali Jassem.
He said license plates of all police and army vehicles will be registered in a computer file — a sign that Maliki may be addressing complaints that gunmen in police and army vehicles and uniforms are carrying out kidnappings and killings.
Although the southern mainly Shi’ite region where British forces are based has been much quieter than Sunni Arab areas patrolled by Americans further north, Basra has become far more dangerous in recent months.
Security has deteriorated as Shi’ite groups compete for a share of the power handed to the majority by the overthrow of Saddam Sunni-dominated administration.
Basra, whose oil accounts for virtually all of Iraq’s state revenues with northern export pipelines crippled by rebel bombings, is a major prize for all parties.
Maliki, who headed a high-level delegation to Basra on Wednesday and vowed to use an “iron fist” to impose order, has promised Iraqis his national unity government of Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds will deliver stability.
Maliki is a leading member of the ruling, but fractious, Shi’ite Islamist United Alliance.
The main Alliance factions in Basra’s power struggle are the armed Badr organisation, the governor’s Fadhila party and radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia.
A source close to Fadhila warned last week it could halt oil exports.
Residents say turf wars between these groups have turned Basra into another blood-stained Iraqi city.
“There are Baathist looting gangs. There are militias. There are even some tribes who come and occupy police stations,” said Saleem Abdullah, 27, a graduate student.