By Karen DeYoung and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 7, 2007
As British forces pull back from Basra in southern Iraq, Shiite militias there have escalated a violent battle against each other for political supremacy and control over oil resources, deepening concerns among some U.S. officials in Baghdad that elements of Iraq's Shiite-dominated national government will turn on one another once U.S. troops begin to draw down.
Three major Shiite political groups are locked in a bloody conflict that has left the city in the hands of militias and criminal gangs, whose control extends to municipal offices and neighborhood streets. The city is plagued by "the systematic misuse of official institutions, political assassinations, tribal vendettas, neighborhood vigilantism and enforcement of social mores, together with the rise of criminal mafias that increasingly intermingle with political actors," a recent report by the International Crisis Group said.
After Saddam Hussein was overthrown in April 2003, British forces took control of the region, and the cosmopolitan port city of Basra thrived with trade, arts and universities. As recently as February, Vice President Cheney hailed Basra as a part of Iraq "where things are going pretty well."
But "it's hard now to paint Basra as a success story," said a senior U.S. official in Baghdad with long experience in the south. Instead, it has become a different model, one that U.S. officials with experience in the region are concerned will be replicated throughout the Iraqi Shiite homeland from Baghdad to the Persian Gulf. A recent series of war games commissioned by the Pentagon also warned of civil war among Shiites after a reduction in U.S. forces.
For the past four years, the administration's narrative of the Iraq war has centered on al-Qaeda, Iran and the sectarian violence they have promoted. But in the homogenous south -- where there are virtually no U.S. troops or al-Qaeda fighters, few Sunnis, and by most accounts limited influence by Iran -- Shiite militias fight one another as well as British troops. A British strategy launched last fall to reclaim Basra neighborhoods from violent actors -- similar to the current U.S. strategy in Baghdad -- brought no lasting success.
"The British have basically been defeated in the south," a senior U.S. intelligence official said recently in Baghdad. They are abandoning their former headquarters at Basra Palace, where a recent official visitor from London described them as "surrounded like cowboys and Indians" by militia fighters. An airport base outside the city, where a regional U.S. Embassy office and Britain's remaining 5,500 troops are barricaded behind building-high sandbags, has been attacked with mortars or rockets nearly 600 times over the past four months.
Britain sent about 40,000 troops to Iraq -- the second-largest contingent, after that of the United States, at the time of the March 2003 invasion -- and focused its efforts on the south. With few problems from outside terrorists or sectarian violence, the British began withdrawing, and by early 2005 only 9,000 troops remained. British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced further drawdowns early this year before leaving office.
The administration has been reluctant to publicly criticize the British withdrawal. But a British defense expert serving as a consultant in Baghdad acknowledged in an e-mail that the United States "has been very concerned for some time now about a) the lawless situation in Basra and b) the political and military impact of the British pullback." The expert added that this "has been expressed at the highest levels" by the U.S. government to British authorities.
The government of new Prime Minister Gordon Brown has pointed to the current relative calm in three of the region's four provinces -- barring Basra -- as evidence of success. According to one British official, Brown told President Bush when they met last week at Camp David that Britain hopes to turn Basra over to Iraqi control in the next few months. Although a further drawdown of its forces is likely, Britain will coordinate its remaining presence with Washington after an assessment in September by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq.
As it prepares to take control of Basra, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has dispatched new generals to head the army and police forces there. But the warring militias are part of factions in the government itself, including radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- whose Mahdi Army is believed responsible for most of the recent attacks on the airport compound -- as well as the Fadhila, or Islamic Virtue Party, and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the country's largest Shiite party.
In March, Fadhila pulled out of Maliki's ruling alliance of Shiite parties in Baghdad after it lost control of the petroleum ministry to the Supreme Council. Last week, under pressure from the council, Maliki fired the Fadhila governor of Basra. Fadhila has refused to relinquish power over the governate or over Basra's lucrative oil refineries, calling the Maliki government "the new Baath" -- a reference to Hussein's Sunni-led political party -- and appealed the dismissal to Iraq's constitutional court.
Jockeying for political power in Baghdad has long since translated into shooting battles in Basra. The militias have shifted alliances with one another, as well as with the British and with Iran as they fight for control of neighborhoods and resources. With the escalation of street battles and assassinations, much of the population is confined to homes and is fearful of Islamic rules imposed by militias.
Although neighbor Iran's presence is pervasive -- with cultural influence, humanitarian aid, arms and money -- U.S. officials and outside experts think that the Iraqi parties are using Iran more than vice versa. Iraqis in the south have long memories of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, one U.S. official said, and when a southern Shiite "wants to tar someone, they call them an Iranian." He said the United States is "always very concerned about Iranian influence, as well we should be, but there is a difference between influence and control. It would be very difficult for the Iranians to establish control."
The ICG study described Iran, Britain and the United States as equally confused about what is happening in Basra. During a recent visit there, the U.S. official said, he was unable to meet with any local Iraqis outside the airport base or to travel beyond the secured route between the base and the palace. About 200 Americans are in and around the city, including those assigned to the embassy office, some civilian support personnel and contract security guards.
Basra's "security nightmare" has already had devastating effects on Iraq's economy, said Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan. Home to two-thirds of Iraq's oil resources, Basra is the country's sole dependable outlet for exporting oil, with a capacity of 1.8 million barrels a day. Much of Basra's violence is "over who gets what cut from Iraq's economic resources," a U.S. Army strategist in Iraq said.
Militias and criminal gangs are financed in part by stolen oil smuggled outside the country, even as Iraq lacks enough energy to provide electricity to many of its people. Both the oil industry and the port facilities -- providing Iraq's only maritime access -- have made Basra "a significant prize for local political actors," the ICG said.
The current U.S. security operation to "clear, hold and build" in Baghdad and its surroundings is almost a replica of Operation Sinbad, which British and Iraqi forces conducted in Basra from September 2006 to March of this year with a mission of "clear, hold and civil reconstruction." Although Operation Sinbad initially succeeded in lowering crime and political assassinations, attacks rose in the spring and British forces withdrew into their compounds.
In the early years of Iraq's occupation, British officials often disdained the U.S. use of armored patrols and heavily protected troops. The British approach of lightly armed foot patrols -- copied from counterinsurgency operations in Northern Ireland -- sought to avoid antagonizing the local population and encourage cooperation. A 2005 report by the defense committee of the House of Commons commended the British army's performance and urged the Ministry of Defense to "use its influence" to get the Americans to take a less aggressive approach.
In a recent BBC interview, Air Chief Marshal Jock Stirrup, chief of the British defense staff, insisted that Basra has been a success. But he acknowledged that judgment depended on "what your interpretation of the mission was in the first place," adding: "I'm afraid people had, in many instances, unrealistic aspirations."
The mission, he said, was simply to "get the place and the people to a state where Iraqis could run this part of the country, if they chose to."