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Basra’s second battle decoded

Tuesday 1 April 2008, by Reidar Visser

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 revenue from this precious resource; the central government intervenes to clean up. This is how many in the media have been reporting the week-long clashes between government forces and militiamen in Basra which ended on 30 March 2008 with the withdrawal of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army from the streets.

The portrayal of the Basra conflict as one where the Nouri al-Maliki government in Baghdad launched a security operation with the single aim of getting rid of unruly militias is reinforced by pundits with ties to the George W Bush administration; they add that the Iraqi prime minister’s actions are essential "preparations" for the provincial elections scheduled for autumn 2008, or moves to forestall Iranian influence in Basra, or both.

A question of motive

But on closer inspection, there are problems in such 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 operations on the ground, which seemed to target only one of these militia groups, the Mahdi army itself. Surely, if the aim was to make Basra a safer place, it would have been logical to attempt to stem the influence of militias loyal to the Sadrists’ local competitors - the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and the armed groups allied to the Fadila party (which have dominated the oil "protection" services for a long time)?

Some suggest that the al-Maliki operation - codenamed sawlat al-fursan ("the attack of the knights") - has less to do with the rule of law than with a wider attempt by the prime minister and his ISCI allies to marginalise their local political enemies; this in preparation for the local elections due in October, or with a view to dominating the process of forming federal entities (which could start in April). Maybe, the argument can run, 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 al-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.

There are at least two reasons for this. First, 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 (with Shi’a factions, Shaykhis, Christians, secularists, Sunni, and tribal groups competing for influence), and the overall electoral potential of the Sadrists there is probably considerably smaller than many analysts have predicted. On the federalism question, the Sadrists are entirely on the sidelines; the director of the Sadrist office in the city even recently complained 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 Shi’a federal entity).

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

A multiform reality

A less obvious explanation for the assault that may be worth pursuing is Nouri 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 own Da’wa party’s lack of strong militias. During the early days of fighting in Basra, the media reported disagreements between al-Maliki and al-Firayji and Khalaf (and even predicted their imminent dismissal); but it may be more significant that for several weeks, both these figures had been talking about a forthcoming crackdown on militias (and on some occasions have singled out the Sadrists for criticism). Indeed, before the recent manoeuvres there were more limited operations against Mahdist followers of Ahmad al-Hasan in Basra in January.

If al-Maliki could achieve success in such moves against internal Shi’a enemies, this could conceivably increase his immunity against challenges to his premiership from ISCI (and also his attractiveness as a partner in other governorates where the Sadrists are a more formidable challenge); but this would still not resolve the contradiction between his own centralism (in which 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 quarter of 2008 suggest that many of them would prefer politics to the battlefield; it seems like a miscalculation by al-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 for the first few days of fighting refrained from showing its hand was Fadila, which controls the governor position. In 2007 the party frequently criticised al-Maliki’s security operatives in Basra, at one point even signalling reluctance over the prospect of a handover from the British to the Iraqi forces. (The party may have feared that al-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.)

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 on 27 March the parliamentary bloc of Fadila issued a statement highly critical of the Basra operations, asking for them to be brought to an end. This is significant because it means that there has been no deal between Fadila and al-Maliki, and thus there is no resolution to what has been one of the most persistent conflicts in Basra politics since 2005: Fadila’s control of the governor position, which has been challenged by ISCI with the support of al-Maliki.

The longer view

Perhaps the most useful approach in attempting to make sense of what has happened in Basra is to compare the narratives of the parties involved. Nouri al-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 next round of David Petraeus/Ryan Crocker hearings on 8 April). The Sadrists complain about high-handedness by a government allied to "the occupation".

This could all suggest that al-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. The contrast between the strategies of the two great powers involved is interesting here. Washington has uncritically espoused al-Maliki’s cause and given him carte blanche to define who the enemy is; but Iran seems to be betting on several horses at once - maintaining its historical alliance with ISCI while also seeking to engage with its traditional enemies, the Sadrists. Perhaps its ultimate aim is to weaken the Sadrists, but in the interim Tehran may also be seeking to ascertain which political forces actually enjoy most support on the ground in Iraq south of Baghdad.

Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. He holds a doctorate in middle-eastern studies from the University of Oxford. He is the author of Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq (Lit-Verlag, 2005), the first study ever on a specific case of southern separatism in Iraq. Many of his writings on questions of federalism, autonomy and decentralisation in southern Iraq are available at his website,