Calm in Basra May Offer A Guide for Iraqi Security

Two months after the Iraqi government ordered its fledgling military to root out religious militias in Basra, many of the city's nearly 3 million residents are resuming lives that had been interrupted by an austere interpretation of Islam.
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 21, 2008

BASRA, Iraq -- The Iraqi army soldiers walked with confidence into this city's notorious Five Miles neighborhood. Shiite militiamen once greeted them with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Now, smiling children waved, and a nearby market pulsed with energy. "Nobody before was able to get in here," said Col. Bilal al-Dayni, surveying the battle-scarred landscape.

For Dayni, a barrel-chested former officer in Saddam Hussein's military, the scene was a vindication. The Americans disbanded Hussein's army after the 2003 invasion. Under British administration, Basra fell into the grip of zealots and gunmen. But nearly three months after the Iraqi government launched an offensive to reinstall authority, about 30,000 Iraqi soldiers control Basra, providing a glimpse of what might happen when the bulk of U.S. troops depart Iraq.

"The Iraqi army is like an antique vase," said Dayni, beaming. "When you remove the dust, you will find a diamond."

As the two countries pursue contentious negotiations over the future role of the U.S. military in Iraq, the evolution of Basra suggests that Iraqi troops, when deployed in large numbers in areas without deep sectarian divisions, can provide security largely on their own.

For Iraqi army commanders in this strategic southern Shiite city, where much of Iraq's oil flows to the rest of the world, the Basra offensive has reinvigorated their sense of pride.

"Iraqis feel sensitive to the presence of foreign troops, so of course people will deal differently with Iraqi forces," said Brig. Gen. Mohan al-Freiji, the former top Iraqi army commander in Basra. "We understand Islamic society, our soldiers know the language, and we connect better with our people.

Dayni stepped out of his Humvee and walked to a corner of a wide, traffic-choked highway that led toward Baghdad. Before the offensive, residents called it the Road of Death. Dayni knew why: In early April, a bomb killed his battalion commander, Brig. Gen. Wisam Salih Mahdi, a few yards from where Dayni stood.

"The militias in Basra are finished," Dayni said. "What remains are the last fugitives, like their last breath."

The Basra offensive, by all descriptions, was a haphazard affair. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki consulted neither his political allies nor Iraq's parliament. American generals knew of the operation a few days before its launch. In the initial days, hundreds of Iraqi army soldiers fled their posts, forcing Maliki to bring in reinforcements. Clashes erupted across southern Iraq and in Baghdad's Sadr City district, the stronghold of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.

But outside forces came to Maliki's aid. British and American warplanes bombarded Shiite militia targets, and U.S. military advisers assisted Iraqi commanders. Sadr urged his fighters to stand down and obey a cease-fire he imposed last August. Iran played a major role in brokering a politically expedient deal between Sadr and the government. The deal ended the offensive, allowing Iraqi forces to enter and maintain checkpoints around the city.

Despite Dayni's optimism, it's still unclear whether Maliki's gambit has succeeded. The Mahdi Army has been known to disappear from the streets in other areas of Iraq, only to resurface and resume the fight months later. Because of the deal, Iraqi troops never faced any prolonged fighting. Neither the Americans nor the British have full confidence in Iraq's fledgling army.

Also unclear is whether the lessons of Basra can be applied elsewhere, given the country's complex sectarian and political makeup.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company