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As British troops exit Basra, Shiites vie to fill power vacuum

What happens in the city may may provide a window on the future for the rest of Iraq.

By Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 17, 2007


When British forces took Basra on April 6, 2003, their artillery damaged a statue of an Iraqi soldier straddling a writhing shark. It was commissioned by Saddam Hussein to commemorate the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. Looters have stolen the soldier.

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But the shark, meant to represent Iran, remains.

The Islamic Republic's influence is indeed felt throughout Basra, Iraq's second-largest city where Shiite parties, militiamen, and criminal gangs all are locked in a vicious fight for power. The streets in the provincial capital are even abuzz with talk of Iranian-trained sleeper cells at the ready.

With the British exit earlier this month, which some analysts say is a prelude to the 5,500-strong contingent's complete withdrawal from Iraq, comes great uncertainty for this city: Will Iran bolster its strategic foothold? Will the Shiite militias control the streets? Is the Iraqi Army strong enough to mediate the fight between rival parties?

What happens here may provide a window on the future for the rest of Iraq.

This is a city that operates according to a fragile balance of military force, fear, cronyism, and business interests. All of Iraq is perilous. But the violence and fear in Basra takes place mostly outside the sphere of Sunni-Shiite killings. Al Qaeda is not a factor.

Basra is a predominately Shiite city, yet it is still imbued with fear of kidnappings, assassinations, and being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This instability reveals that the violence in Iraq is not only sectarian or the result of insurgent activity, but is also caused by deep-seated political and tribal rivalries and an intense scramble for power.

"I came back to Iraq when the American and British tanks rolled in … things looked promising and we thought our dream of a democratic and tolerant state may materialize," says a university professor, who, like dozens of people interviewed by the Monitor during a recent trip to Basra requested anonymity for fear of retribution from militias. "The dream has been shattered. I feel trapped now and I am very pessimistic. I am looking for a way out."

The British say they can return if necessary. In a statement issued Sept. 5, Britain's Ministry of Defense said that despite the pullout they "still retain security responsibility" for Basra Province. They will hand over full control to provincial authorities by year-end.

"Troops will retain the capability to intervene in support of the Iraqi Security Forces should the security situation demand it," it said.

But should British forces decide to venture back, they will inevitably face a den of Mahdi Army fighters. During the occupation, Moqtada al-Sadr's militia made a habit of targeting the Hussein-era compound of palaces in the city center that had been the British base until its hand-over to the Iraqi Army earlier this month.

17,000 Mahdi Army militiamen

Billboards glorify Mahdi militiamen who died fighting the British. Streets carry their names. Upon the British departure, the Mahdi Army claimed victory. It had been leading the fight against the occupation since its early days. On Sept. 8, thousands of militiamen roamed the city center in vehicles and on foot brandishing Mr. Sadr's posters in what they billed as a "victory parade."

They are trying to "falsely claim credit for 'driving us out,' " says Maj. Mike Shearer, spokesman for the British forces.

In the fight between Shiite factions, Mr. Sadr's army has emerged as the most formidable force.

The militia is said to number 17,000 in Basra alone and is divided into 40 company-size military units, according to a senior Iraqi security official. Little is known about their local leader, Muntasir al-Maliki, who had replaced a commander killed by British forces in late May, except what's said about him having killed his own father a few years ago because he was an unrepentant supporter of the former regime.

A guide to the key Shiite players in Basra

Sadrists and Mahdi Army: The movement of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is a formidable force in Basra. The Mahdi Army is estimated to number 17,000 in the province. Security officials say that some of the Basra militia are infiltrated by Iran and beholden to Tehran. It opposes a super-Shiite region, but supports the ouster of the Fadhila governor.

The Council: The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, previously known by its acronym SCIRI, embraces four other affiliate parties in Basra:

• The Badr Organization – Once the council’s Iranian-trained paramilitary arm, known as the Badr Brigade.

• The Shaheed Al-Mihrab Organization – A nationwide movement headed by Ammar al-Hakim, the son of the Council’s chief.

• The Sayed Al-Shuhada Movement (Master of Martyrs Movement).

• The Hizbullah Movement in Iraq (no relation to Lebanese Hizbullah) and another small Iraqi party called Hizbullah al-Iraq (see below).

All five parties were previously based in Iran and have strong ties to Tehran. The Council and its affiliates hold 21 of the 40 seats in the provincial council. Badr still controls several police units, including customs.

The Pentacle House: The Council and its four party affiliates make up the Bayet al-Khumasi, or the Pentacle House. The goal: to create a nine-province Shiite group called the “South of Baghdad region.” Billboards in Basra tout the project as a “Shiite Renaissance.”

The Islamic Fadhila (Virtue) Party: Fadhila is a national party founded by Basra natives. Its spiritual leader is Najaf-based cleric Ayatollah Muhammad al-Yacoubi, who broke ranks with Moqtada al-Sadr in 2003.

The movement continues to espouse Sadrist ideas but has increasingly fashioned itself as a Shiite Arab Islamist party opposed to Iranian meddling in Iraq. It opposes the pro-Iranian Council and its affiliates over a number of issues, including the supersouthern region.

Fadhila holds 12 seats in the Basra provincial council, including the governorship and one of the two deputy governor slots in Basra. Fadhila dominates the 15,000-strong oil protection force.

Thaar Allah (God’s Revenge) Party: A small party based in Basra and headed by Yousif al-Mussawi. He is suspected by many city residents of being an Iranian agent. The party derives much of its funding from wealthy merchants who rely on it for protection. It has allied itself with the Council and its Pentacle House in the fight to oust the Fadhila governor. Mr. Mussawi blames the governor for the death of three members of his family during a raid on his party headquarters in 2006.

Hizbullah al-Iraq: A small party headed by tribal chief Abdul-Karim al-Mahamadawi, based in neighboring Maysan Province. The Prince of the Marshes, as Mr. Mahamadawi is known, has a large, armed tribal following and presence in Basra. He has tense relations with the Council and its affiliates.

Mahmoud al-Hassani al-Sarkhi: The cleric broke ranks with the Sadrists and is believed to be in the holy city of Karbala with the bulk of his militia. But he still has a following in Basra. His posters adorn many streets. The controversial cleric has challenged the authority of the marjiya, the Shiite religious authority dominated by the Najaf-based Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.